Nine North Korean refugees were arrested in China in October and deported, even after they requested help from South Korean diplomats, officials said yesterday.
The nine, relatives of South Korean prisoners of war, were deported from the Chinese northeast border city of Shenyang, and many were placed in detention centers in the Stalinist state as punishment, officials have told a news magazine.
The refugees had earlier fled across the border to Shenyang and sought assistance from the diplomats to defect to South Korea, the Monthly Chosun magazine reported.
The diplomats took the nine, aged between 20 and 70, to a hotel where they were arrested the next morning after the manager tipped off Chinese police.
The refugees are relatives of three South Korean prisoners of war who settled in the North after the Korean War of 1950-1953.
The South Korean foreign ministry yesterday expressed "deep regret" at the incident, vowing to do its utmost to help such prisoners of war return to the South with their North Korean children and wives.
The revelations, initially reported by a local newspaper, were a fresh embarrassment to the ministry that issued a similar apology two weeks ago after one of its consular offices in China mishandled a call for help from a South Korean abductee who fled the North after 31 years.
"We think it is very regrettable" that the defectors could not come to South Korea, the ministry said in a statement.
China does not recognize fleeing North Koreans as refugees and is required to send them back to their impoverished homeland under a treaty with Pyongyang.
However, Beijing has allowed defectors to leave the country if they take refuge at foreign diplomatic missions or their cases draw media attention in an apparent attempt to avoid international criticism.
The same South Korean consulate caused public uproar earlier this month after revelations that one of its officials spoke angrily to an elderly South Korean abductee in a phone call seeking the office's help after he fled the North after 31 years.
The consular official allegedly pressed the abductee, Choi Wook-il, to explain how he found his mobile phone number, without trying to help him, during the phone conversation last month.