Fewer North Koreans fleeing to South Korea, U.N. rights envoy says

Reuters

* U.N. envoy: fleeing North Koreans should not be sent home

* Evidence points to large-scale rights abuses, U.N. inquiryfinds

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Fewer North Koreans arefleeing to South Korea, possibly due to tighter border controland cases of asylum seekers being returned home by China, a U.N.rights envoy said on Tuesday.

Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on thesituation in North Korea, said that in the first nine months ofthis year 1,041 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, comparedto 1,509 people for all of 2012 and 2,706 people in 2011.

"This represents a reversal of the trend of steady increasein the number of annual arrivals since 1998, possibly due torecently tightened border control and increased incidents ofrefoulement," Darusman wrote in a statement presented to a U.N.General Assembly human rights committee.

Darusman said the international law principle ofnon-refoulement - an obligation not to return asylum seekers orrefugees to a place where their life or liberty would be at risk- clearly applies to North Koreans who have left withoutpermission.

Communist North Korea is one of the world's most reclusiveand repressive nations, accused of starving and torturingthousands of people in a network of prison camps while takingextraordinary steps to prevent its citizens from fleeing toSouth Korea or other nations.

In late May, nine North Koreans, mostly children andreportedly all orphans, were repatriated from Laos through Chinato North Korea, while in February of last year the UnitedNations raised concerns about the possibility of 31 NorthKoreans being returned to Pyongyang after they were arrested inChina.

"All countries where escapees from the Democratic Republicof Korea (North Korea) are seeking refuge or transiting mustprotect them, treat them humanely and abstain from returningthem," Darusman said in his statement.

A representative of the Chinese U.N. mission said that thenine North Koreans who came from Laos had valid visas to enterChina and had been released. The Chinese representative saidthat Beijing had not received a request for them to be returnedhome.

The Chinese representative also said that North Koreansillegally entering China were not refugees because "they enterChina for economic reasons, therefore we have the right to dealwith these people according to our law because they areillegally entering."

'GROSS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS'

The Laos U.N. mission told the world body's human rightscommittee it had addressed the issue of the North Koreandefectors in accordance with international law and had workedwith the Chinese and North Korean embassies on the issue.

Darusman said there has been no improvement in the diresituation of human rights in North Korea and that the governmenthas continued to pursue "a belligerent military policy," whilethe majority of North Koreans are being denied food.

Darusman is also a member of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry onHuman Rights in North Korea along with Sonja Biserko of Serbiaand Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, who chairs the inquiry.They are due to deliver a final report in March 2014.

"The entire body of evidence gathered so far points to whatappear to be large-scale patterns of systematic and gross humanrights violations," Kirby told the General Assembly's humanrights committee on Tuesday, adding that Pyongyang had refusedto cooperate with the inquiry.

North Korea has dismissed the inquiry as a "political plot"to force a leadership change in Pyongyang.

Inmates in North Korea's prison camps suffered starvationand torture and described "unspeakable atrocities" comparable toNazi abuses uncovered after World War Two, the U.N. inquiry saidin a preliminary report in September.

The inquiry was established in March, following pressure byJapan, South Korea and Western powers to begin building a casefor possible criminal prosecution. North Korea is not a memberof the International Criminal Court, but the Security Councilcan ask the court to investigate non-signatories.

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