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Twelve North Koreans seek asylum in Laos-group

MYT 11:01:36 AM

SEOUL (Reuters) - Twelve North Korean refugees have sought asylum in the South Korean embassy in Laos, a human rights group said on Friday.

The North Koreans, who travelled through China into Laos, entered the embassy on Thursday with the help of human rights activists working in Vientiane, the Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers International said in a statement.

"They were on their way to freedom in South Korea, but have since been stranded in Vientiane," the group said.

South Korea's foreign ministry declined to confirm the case. It usually declines comment on North Korean refugees, citing their safety and the sensitivity of the diplomacy involved in processing asylum seekers from the North.

North Korea routinely accuses citizens who flee the country of being "criminals" and those who help them of trying to undermine its sovereignty.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted the South Korean ambassador in Laos as saying a group of 12 people are in the embassy compound and that their case will be handled according their wishes.

North Koreans seeking asylum typically flee the country to China and then seek passage to South Korea via a third country. These days, Thailand has become a busy transit point and it is highly unusual for the refugees to seek passage in Laos.

More than 10,000 North Korean refugees have made their way to South Korea, where they are almost always granted permanent refuge.

The latest asylum seekers comes as relations between the two Koreas appeared to be heading for a chill after the new conservative government pressed its impoverished neighbour to improve human rights in the communist state.

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