A group focused on human rights in North Korea issued a letter Wednesday to Laotian president Choummali Saignason regarding the nine young North Korean defectors who were arrested by Laotian authorities earlier in May and sent back to North Korea via China in a rare and controversial move on behalf of the Laotian government.
The letter, issued to President Lt. Gen. Saignason by the North Korea Freedom Coalition on both Monday and Wednesday, asks the leader to ensure that Laotian authorities visit the nine defectors in North Korea to ensure they are being treated properly, and to promise that in future instances, defectors will be turned into South Korean custody, instead of being returned to North Korea, where they will most likely face imprisonment in labor camps or even execution due to their disloyalty.
"Because the lives of the nine young people rests in your hands because of the decision that was made, we make this simple request: that the Laos People's Democratic Republic perform regular visits to these nine children in North Korea, so that you can guarantee they have been welcomed on their return, treated properly, and their rights have been protected and that you share that information with the Republic of Korea who had requested to care for these nine young people," the North Korea Freedom Coalition requested.
The coalition also called on the Laotian government to "never again put the lives of North Korean men, women and children at risk by forcing them back to North Korea and that you instead return to your previous policy to work on their resettlement to the Republic of Korea, where they have automatic citizenship under the Republic of Korea's constitution."
On May 10, nine North Korean youth, reportedly orphans between the ages of 15-23, were arrested by Laotian officials in the country's Oudomxay province, near China's southwestern border.
The nine orphans had traveled to Laos via China, and after being detained by Laotian authorities, were flown back to China, where they were then returned to North Korea.
These nine North Koreans were the last remaining of a group of 16 who had been cared for by a South Korean Christian missionary and his wife since 2010.
The missionary couple, who were also arrested by Laotian authorities, had previously successfully rescued four defectors to South Korea and three to the U.S., according to a NKFC press release emailed to The Christian Post.
This couple has reportedly been charged with human trafficking by Laos, and the country has attempted to harshen the human trafficking charges by describing all nine defectors as minors between the ages of 14-18, although it has since been confirmed that some of the refugees were older than 18.
South Korea allows asylum to all North Koreans able to escape the country, and many times these defectors travel through Laos, Vietnam, or Mongolia to reach South Korea.
China's relationship with North Korea, meanwhile, calls for forced repatriation of defectors should they be found in China.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, South Korean officials were reportedly in talks with the Laotian government regarding the refugees when it was discovered that the youth had been arrested and sent back to North Korea.
This decision on behalf of the Laotian government has proven shocking, as Laos has previously been considered a safe route for refugees, and some contend that this unexpected move shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's crackdown on defectors, especially those traveling near China, which is North Korea's only ally.
North Korea's Red Cross, which is reportedly controlled by the government although it maintains the rules of the international association, released a statement Wednesday claiming the nine refugees arrested in Laos were "kidnapped" by South Koreans, brainwashed, and reportedly forced to convert to Christianity by memorizing Bible verses and hymns.
According to NKFC, the nine refugees are reportedly being held in solitary confinement near Sunan airport in the country's capital of Pyongyang.
On Wednesday, NKFC also issued a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, encouraging him to address this recent arrest when he meets with Xi Jinping, the general secretary and president of the People's Republic of China, next week.
The letter calls on President Obama to speak with President Jinping in regards to reversing China's forced repatriation policy.
"We believe this is a unique opportunity for China to show great leadership by changing its repatriation policy which has caused such tragic circumstances for North Koreans fleeing starvation and persecution in their homeland," the letter states.
The letter adds that the change in policy would send a strong message to Kim Jong-Un regarding the importance of improving human rights conditions in his country.
The United Nations released a statement earlier this week saying it is "extremely concerned" about the welfare of the nine orphans forcibly repatriated to North Korea.
"We are extremely concerned for the protection of this group, which includes up to five minors, who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville, told reporters in Geneva, as reported by The Guardian.
The Guardian reports that North Korean law issues a minimum punishment of five years' hard labor for defectors, up to a life sentence imprisonment in some instances, or even execution for the most serious cases.
North Korea has been named the No.1 persecutor of Christians for the past 11 years by human rights watchdog Open Doors USA.
Christianity is illegal in the country, and previous reports indicate that Christians have been shot for their faith, adding particular concern for the nine youths repatriated to the country, as they were traveling with South Korean Christian missionaries and have already been described by the North Korean government as Christian converts.