One N. Korean girl seeks asylum in S. Korean Embassy in Laos

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean girl entered the South Korean Embassy in Laos on Thursday to seek asylum, an activist said, in the latest defection by North Koreans.

The 17-year-old, identified only by her family name Ri, walked into the South Korean diplomatic mission in the Southeast Asian country at around 5 p.m. (3 p.m. local time), the activist said by phone from Laos.

The South Korean ambassador to Laos, Kim Soo-gwon, declined to confirm whether she sought refugee status, citing government policy on North Korean defectors.

In Seoul, an official familiar with the issue confirmed the defection. He did not provide any details and asked not to be identified, citing policy.

It was not immediately clear whether Laos will agree to send Ri to South Korea.

In May, Laos came under criticism from the international community for deporting nine North Korean orphans back to China to be later repatriated to North Korea.

China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees and regularly repatriates those who are caught trying to defect to the North, where they can face harsh punishment.

Ri fled to China in recent weeks before crossing the border into Laos to seek asylum in South Korean Embassy, according to the activist.

The latest defection came despite North Korea strengthening its patrol along the country's porous border with China to arrest those who attempt to flee the country.

Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, currently home to more than 26,000 North Korean defectors.

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