Pyongyang: North Korea released a fresh video Thursday purportedly showing nine young defectors controversially repatriated from Laos, in an apparent bid to refute claims that they had been executed or imprisoned.
The nine refugees, then aged 15 to 19, were arrested in Laos in May 2013 and eventually returned to the North via China, despite pleas by Seoul and the UN against their repatriation.
It was not clear exactly when they had escaped from North Korea.
The case attracted global attention because of their age and reports suggesting they were all orphans.
Earlier this month, a former Seoul lawmaker said that the two eldest refugees -- Moon Chol and Paik Yong-Won -- had been executed on their return and the others sent to a prison camp.
The latest video -- the second released this week on the North`s official website, Uriminzokkiri-- apparently featured all nine defectors and included footage of them studying in school and praising leader Kim Jong-Un.
An earlier video, posted Tuesday, had only shown four.
"We are studying in comfort under the loving care of our leader who saved us from the grip of death," Moon Chol said in the latest post.
"We heard about the rumours in the South about our death ... but we are alive and well," Moon said.
North Koreans caught after fleeing the country usually face severe punishment on their return, and there was no way to determine to what extent the video represented the reality of the young defectors` situation.
Defectors who voluntarily return to North Korea -- sometimes because the lives of family members there have been threatened -- are often paraded in front of TV cameras to denounce the horrors of life in the South.
In the latest video, Paik Yong-Won said he had been "kidnapped" by South Korean agents and was now studying hard to "return the mercy shown by our respected leader."
South Korea`s Unification Ministry said it could not judge the veracity of the video or even confirm if the children shown were indeed the ones repatriated from Laos.
One Seoul official said North Korea was desperate to avoid any fresh criticism of its human rights record ahead of a key UN vote on December 18.
A plenary session of the UN General Assembly will discuss a resolution that recommends referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court on possible charges of crimes against humanity.
"We believe that the video was part of the North`s effort to improve its image on human rights ahead of the UN vote and discredit campaigns to pass the resolution," the official told AFP.
Most North Koreans fleeing their homeland begin their journey by crossing into neighbouring China, where they risk being repatriated if caught.
They then try to make it to a third country -- usually in Southeast Asia -- from where they mostly seek permission to resettle in South Korea.