Seoul: Human rights campaigners cautioned Thursday that an agreement by Myanmar and North Korea to restore diplomatic relations must not lead to further repression in their secretive nations.

Kay Seok, Seoul-based researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, expressed fears for the future of North Korean refugees fleeing via Myanmar.

The countries “are among the most repressive states in the world,” she told AFP.

She said there was particular concern about the possible effect on those refugees who enter Myanmar from China in the hope of travelling on to another country and eventual settlement in South Korea.

“If the Burmese (Myanmar) government agrees to arrest and repatriate them to North Korea, that would be a terrible thing — leaving the country without permission carries heavy punishment,” she added.

Military-run Myanmar and communist North Korea, two of the world’s most secretive nations, agreed earlier Thursday in Yangon to restore diplomatic relations after more than two decades of severed ties.

South Korea’s foreign ministry had no immediate comment on the move.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the North to China in recent years, with most travelling on to Southeast Asia hoping eventually to reach Seoul or other destinations.

In a report last October, the International Crisis Group said those who are caught by Myanmar authorities faced up to one year in jail, but none had been sent back to China — which has a much-criticised policy of returning them all to their homeland where they face prison and sometimes torture.

Human Rights Watch, in a report last month, said North Korea has toughened its punishments for people caught trying to flee — including imposing longer prison terms during which inmates face beatings and starvation.

Takehiko Tsukushi, chief secretary of the Foundation for Human Rights in Asia, a Tokyo-based public awareness group, also voiced concern.

“We hope that the tie-up of the two countries, both criticised for their human rights records, will not stall any progress in improving human rights conditions,” he said in Tokyo.

“We’d rather wish that the two countries expand their relations with the international community and learn more about what the world is thinking regarding human rights standards.”