S Korea to seek UN support for N. Koreans in China

South Korea will seek global support at a UN meeting next week in efforts to rescue North Korean refugees recently arrested in China and facing repatriation, the foreign ministry said today.

Activists and Seoul lawmakers say about 30 North Koreans will be returned even though they face harsh punishment back in their homeland. The South Korean foreign ministry has not confirmed the total figure.

But a spokeswoman said Seoul has repeatedly urged Beijing not to send back at least 10 confirmed arrested in the northeastern city of Shenyang this month.

"Since our bilateral discussion (with China) is not working very well, we will make efforts to get international support via various channels including the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)," she told AFP.

Seoul diplomats will address the broad issue of ensuring safety for North Korean refugees during a UNHCR meeting in Geneva next week, she said, but will not specifically target China for criticism.

Rights groups have assailed China's policy of repatriating North Koreans as economic migrants rather than giving them refugee status. The spokeswoman also confirmed a media report that 11 North Korean refugees have been trapped in South Korean consulates in Beijing and Shenyang for almost three years because China refuses to let them leave for the South.

"They came in to seek help (from the South). For now, there is no way for them to get out of there," she said.

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said Beijing was trying to discourage further attempts to enter the South's diplomatic missions in China. More than 21,700 North Koreans have fled since the 1950-1953 Korean War, the vast majority in recent years.

They typically escape on foot to China, hide out and then travel to a third country to seek resettlement in South Korea. Activists have staged a series of protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul since last week, demanding Beijing not repatriate the detainees.

Dozens of protesters today called China "a bystander of torture and public execution" in the North. A group of North Korean refugees already in Seoul called on Beijing to honour the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying refugees would face "indefinite torture eventually ending with public execution" if sent home.

"Please give these innocent lives an opportunity to live," the graduates or current students of Yeomyung School said in a statement before another planned protest outside the embassy Tuesday afternoon.

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