South Korean President Park Geun-hye has warned North Korea not to punish a group of defectors who were forcibly returned to the communist state last week after attempting to flee.
Nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, were detained in Laos on May 10 and deported to China on May 27. From there they were flown to Pyongyang, despite concern that they could face retribution from North Korea's authorities.
On Monday, Park called the affair a "truly regrettable incident that should have never happened."
"If [the defectors'] safety is not guaranteed, North Korea won't be able to avoid international criticism and responsibility for their human rights," she told a meeting of senior government secretaries.
The defectors' current whereabouts are unknown and it is unclear what fate awaits them. They will most likely, under North Korean law, be sentenced to six months or more in a prison camp depending on the circumstances of their defection.
If they are deemed ideological enemies of the state, three generations of their families will also be arrested or exiled to the remote countryside, while the defectors themselves could live out the last of their days in one of six penal colonies.
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South Korea — the most common destination for North Korean defectors and the country these nine were ultimately hoping to reach – has been criticised for not doing more to stop the group's repatriation.
The Lao government claims Seoul made no attempt to intervene, an account that South Korean diplomats refute.
Commenting on the case for the first time on Monday, China's foreign ministry said that no other government had asked it not to send the North Koreans back.
According to international law, it is illegal to force refugees to return to a country where their live could be under threat. The United Nations refugee agency has accused both China and Laos of violating this obligation, prompting a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman to criticize the UN's "irresponsible remarks."
Almost 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, usually by way of China, since the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. The biggest wave of refugees began arriving in the 1990s, when North Korea was plunged into a famine.
But the number of North Koreans leaving their homeland has been on the decline over the past year, a development that owes to an improving economy and harsher crackdowns on North Korean sneaking across the Chinese border, according to several experts interviewed by GlobalPost.
The regime under Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has also had success luring former defectors back home. "Double defectors," as they are called, make television appearances when they arrive back home, a propaganda push by authorities to show that life in glamorous Seoul is not prosperous and rarefied.
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