AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
NEW YORK: Washington opposes sending refugees back to countries where they face retribution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed Friday, as activists revealed China had sent home 31 North Koreans.
Speaking at a press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, Clinton did not comment directly on reports by refugee advocates in Seoul that China has repatriated the North Koreans arrested last month.
But she "urged every country to act according to international obligations," including the 1951 UN refugee convention and the 1967 protocol.
"The United States shares the concerns by both the government and the people of the Republic of (South) Korea about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees," the chief US diplomat said.
"We believe that refugees should not be repatriated and subjected once again to the dangers that they fled from," Clinton said in a carefully parsed answer when asked about China's reported repatriation of the refugees.
Refugee advocates in South Korea say the refugees could suffer abuse or even execution for fleeing North Korea during the mourning period for its late leader Kim Jong-Il, who died late last year.
Clinton said Glynn Davies, the US policy coordinator on North Korea, "raised our concerns about the North Korean refugees detained in China with senior Chinese officials when he was last in China in February.
"And we urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees in their territories," she said.
"We continue to work with international organizations in order to protect these refugees and to find durable permanent solutions for them."
The UN refugee agency UNHCR had urged Beijing not to send the North Koreans back, while a parliamentary committee in South Korea -- the destination for most refugees from the North -- passed a resolution criticizing Beijing's policy.
China considers North Koreans to be economic migrants and not refugees deserving protection. Beijing is the main economic and political backer of the isolated state.