SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Before they were detained in Laos and sent home, a group of young North Korean defectors smiled and teased each other as they told an activist how some of them were beaten with sticks for trying to steal noodles in their homeland.
They talked about a South Korean movie they saw, and wondered if prison cells there were really as clean as the film depicted.
The South Korean activist said the encounter provided a brief glimpse into the lives of North Korea's "ggotjebi," an underclass of vagrants who stay alive by begging, scavenging and stealing. It's not clear how many exist, or what will become of the nine defectors repatriated last week.
They range in age from 14 to 22, according to two South Korean activists who said they were familiar with the defectors. Most are believed to be orphans found roaming around a Chinese border town by a South Korean missionary who took them in.
The defectors, seven male and two female, were flown home from China last week. They had been detained in Laos some 17 days earlier, along with a South Korean missionary who tried to help them get to a foreign embassy in the Southeast Asian country, according to South Korean officials and activists in Seoul.
North Korea alleged Wednesday that the youths were not defectors but had been kidnapped by South Koreans.
A spokesman for the Central Committee of North Korea's Red Cross Society accused South Korean traffickers of attempting to abduct the teens, and subjecting them to brainwashing and beatings. The teens also were forced to convert to Christianity, according to a statement carried Wednesday by North Korean state media.
China, North Korea's neighbor and ally, frequently returns North Korean defectors hiding in its territory to their homeland under a bilateral treaty, but analysts said it was unusual for the news of the return of teen "ggotjebi" to become so public.
The term "ggotjebi" is believed to originate from a Russian word meaning nomad. It refers to those who manage to stay alive by begging on the streets, stealing food and goods at markets, rummaging through trash heaps, pickpocketing and burglary. North Korean defectors say the government considers "ggotjebi" a headache because they don't abide by regulations and undermine the country's image.
Eight of the nine repatriated defectors had been ggotjebi at markets in the city of Hyesan in North Korea's northern Ryanggang Province, and in the Chinese border town of Changbai, according to South Korean human-rights activist Ahn Kyung-su. He said he met the defectors in China in mid-April, for one day.
Ahn said he was told that a South Korean missionary had looked after them for months at a shelter in the Chinese border town of Dandong after bringing them from Changbai. Ahn traveled to Dandong to see if any of the defectors wanted to come to his organization in Seoul.
Ahn said most of the defectors were "very active and playful" and knew one another well.
"They just playfully told me about what one another did as ggotjebi," he said. "They talked about being beaten with sticks by restaurant owners after being caught for trying to steal noodles. They were smiling as they told these stories but actually, they're miserable stories."
He said the defectors were interested in South Korea's pop culture and asked him about a recent hit movie in which inmates help one of their own reunite with his daughter in prison. "One of the questions was whether prison cells in South Korea are really as clean as shown on the movie," he said.
Kim Hee Tae, general secretary of the Seoul-based Association for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights, said he helped arrange Ahn's meeting with the missionary at Dandong.
The missionary could not be reached for comment. On those occasions when calls to a mobile phone number provided by Ahn's office were answered, the person on the other end of the line immediately hung up.
Laos' Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued via state media Friday that police detained nine North Korean nationals and two South Koreans on May 10. It said the North Koreans ranged in age from 14 to 18, though activists say some are in their early 20s.
The ministry said the North Koreans illegally entered Laos, that the South Koreans "committed human trafficking," and that the government handed them over to their respective embassies.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday denied that the two South Koreans, reportedly a pastor and his wife, were engaged in human trafficking, and said there is nothing wrong with helping North Korean defectors get to South Korea.
Under North Korea's penal code, repatriated defectors face a minimum of five years of hard labor, and up to life in prison or death for cases deemed serious.
The U.N. human rights chief criticized both China and Laos for allowing the defectors to be repatriated. The U.S. has said it is very concerned about the case, and South Korea has demanded that Pyongyang not punish the defectors unfairly.
China urged the U.N. not to make "irresponsible" comments, and Laos cited human trafficking as a reason for the detainment of South Koreans who helped the defectors.
Though it is unclear how many ggotjebi are in North Korea, the number was believed to have sharply surged in the 1990s, when the country was devastated by a famine that foreign economists estimate killed hundreds of thousands of people. Many people sneaked across the border to China in search of food.
In recent years, as more North Koreans have left their homeland — sometimes without telling immediate family members — the number of children abandoned by their parents has risen as well, defectors say.
"We left our children with a promise that they will only have to wait for just three days (until we can stay together again), but now we cannot even count how old they have become," defector Kim Tai-hee said at a rally in Seoul on Wednesday. "We don't know the whereabouts of the children in North Korea."
Not all became ggotjebi due to economic reasons. Kim Hyuk, a 31-year-old North Korean defector now living in South Korea, said he ran away from home in the northeastern city of Chongjin when he was 7 after finding out his mother was actually his stepmother.
He said he started out scavenging for leftovers in garbage bins, and later stole food from shops, broke into vacant houses, stole clothes that were hanging out to dry and even used razors to slit open other people's bags to steal their lunch at a crowded train station.
"At first I felt a little bit guilty, scared and nervous, but I also thought I would die if I didn't do those things," he said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.
Caught by police, he was frequently sent home and beaten by his father, but he kept running away. He said he never fit into strictly controlled North Korean society.
Kim said he fled to South Korea in 2001 after serving more than a year at a North Korean labor camp for smuggling and other charges, and now works for the government as an instructor on North Korea.