S. Korea to boost manpower at diplomatic missions for N. Korean defectors

SEOUL, June 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to increase its manpower at its overseas diplomatic missions and strengthen cooperation with relevant countries to better protect North Korean defectors believed to be hiding in those nations, the foreign ministry said Tuesday.

The plan came after nine young North Korean defectors were repatriated by Laos and China to their totalitarian homeland late last month, prompting the ministry to face criticism for failing in its duty to protect them and provide enough diplomatic support to prevent them from being sent to the North.

In a report to the National Assembly, the ministry said it will "seek extensive cooperation with the international community and set up a system of cooperation with relevant countries tailored to their situations."

"The issue of North Korean asylum seekers should be addressed in a broad context of the universal value of human rights and securing the lives and safety of North Korean asylum seekers is the most crucial of all," a senior ministry official said on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, a group of 20 North Korean defectors, who had been under protection by the South Korean embassy in Laos, were said to have recently made it to Seoul, a diplomatic source said Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a meeting in Singapore with diplomatic mission chiefs in Southeast Asia on Saturday and discussed ways to ensure the safety of North Korean asylum seekers passing through those countries, ministry officials said.

Laos and some other Southeast Asian nations serve as key transit points for North Korean defectors who flee their homeland through China with the aim of eventually entering South Korea.

More than 25,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

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