SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Monday North Korea should guarantee the safety of a group of young North Korean defectors recently repatriated from Laos to their communist homeland where they are feared to face harsh punishment for fleeing the country.
The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, fled their country in 2011. They hid in China before moving to Laos in hopes of settling in South Korea, but they were rounded up there on May 10 before being deported to China on May 27, and sent home the following day.
Laos handed them over to the North despite appeals from South Korea.
On Monday, Park called the case a "truly regrettable incident that should have never happened."
"What is more important than anything else is to ensure that the lives and safety of the repatriated North Korean youths are guaranteed and they will not receive unfair punishment," Park said during a meeting with senior secretaries.
"If their safety is not guaranteed, North Korea won't be able to avoid international criticism and responsibility for their human rights," she said.
Park said that all humans have the right to enjoy freedom from the time they are born, and that right should never be deprived or infringed upon.
She also said South Korea should not take the case as just a diplomatic issue with Laos, but as a global matter about the human rights problem of North Korean defectors and every possible effort should be put in through the international community, especially refugee organizations, to ensure their safety.
Park said the government should take such defector issues with a greater sense of responsibility and come up with measures to ensure that the latest case won't have negative impacts on major defection routes that fleeing North Koreans have taken to seek asylum via third countries.
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