Seoul: China has repatriated nine North Koreans who fled their homeland despite pleas by South Korea to treat them as refugees and let them stay, news reports said on Friday.

Activists who have been demonstrating in Seoul say the fugitives face severe punishment, or even a death sentence, if forced back to the North.

The South's foreign ministry and legislators have urged China to change its policy of treating the North Koreans as economic migrants, and to give them refugee status.

President Lee Myung-Bak said on Wednesday the North Koreans should be treated in line with international rules. Seoul has said it will seek UN support to try to halt the repatriations.

About 30 North Korean refugees have reportedly been caught by Chinese authorities this month and are awaiting repatriation, as their relatives or other supporters in the South campaign to save them.

"My brother in North Korea called me, and said that my female cousin who crossed into China in late February was caught and sent back to North Korea," a North Korean refugee in the South told on Thursday.

She said eight others were also repatriated.