- ASIA NEWS
- Updated May 31, 2013, 7:12 a.m. ET
SEOUL—Laos handed over a group of North Korean refugees to Pyongyang this week and rejected criticism it had endangered their lives, saying South Korea was informed of the detentions but made no attempt to help, an assertion a South Korean official disputed.
News of the repatriation of the North Koreans between the ages of 15 and 23 has garnered national attention in South Korea. It’s thought to be the first time Laos—a common transit point for North Koreans fleeing their homeland via China—has handed over defectors to agents from the North.
In previous instances, escapees caught inside Laos were moved to a third country, often Thailand, to be sent to Seoul under an unofficial agreement between Laos and South Korea, a former South Korean diplomat to Laos said.
Human-rights activists working for North Korean defectors say the swift repatriation is unusual, suggesting North Korea has been more assertive in recovering defectors since the dictator Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011.
Officials from the Southeast Asian nation, where the North Koreans were detained on May 10, said both the North Korean and South Korean embassies in the capital Vientiane were informed but only the North moved to take the group. Laotian officials said the refugees didn’t ask to be sent to South Korea.
South Korea has declined to comment officially on the case, but a senior official challenged the Laotian account on Thursday. “South Korea made constant requests to visit the North Korean refugees, to have them released to us and to protect them from forced extradition,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The North Korean defectors are assumed to have been repatriated earlier this week via China, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry, and will likely face interrogation. Punishment for defectors that have had contact with South Koreans and religious groups is widely considered to be more severe, with punishments including hard labor, prison camp and even execution, according to scholars and human-rights activists.
The refugees were arrested close to the Chinese border together with South Korean guides. They were moved to a detention center in Vientiane days later, Laotian Foreign Ministry officials said.
Because the nine North Koreans and the two South Koreans crossed the Sino-Laotian border without passing an immigration checkpoint, authorities treated them as illegal immigrants, Laotian officials said. Both North and South Korean embassies were notified of the refugees once their identities were revealed, and at the North’s request, the nine were released into its custody, according to the ministry’s account.
Laotian Foreign Ministry officials said that contrary to earlier South Korean reports based on the guides’ testimony, the North Korean refugees didn’t ask to be sent to the South, and the South Korean Embassy didn’t file an official request to visit them. “We expected them to do that [request a visit],” said Khantivong Somlith, an official at the Laotian Embassy in Seoul.
South Korea’s first attempt to discuss the issue with Laos came only on Wednesday when the Vientiane-based ambassador visited the Laotian vice foreign minister—after the nine refugees were escorted out of the country by North Korean agents, the Laotian officials said.
The South Korean guides, a pastor and his wife, accused Laos and North Korea of cutting a deal for the escapees’ repatriation. Speaking to national media, they added that South Korea didn’t intervene quickly or forcefully enough. The guides, who are back in South Korea, couldn’t be reached to comment.
South Korean media and activists have questioned whether this case points to Pyongyang’s influence eclipsing Seoul’s in Vientiane, despite the South being a top aid donor to Laos. North Korea and Laos have maintained relatively close relations as allies since the 1970s, but recently the level of senior-level contact has increased, according to the South Korean government official.
The last known senior-level contact between the North and the Southeast Asian country was a week ago, when North Korea’s head of parliament met with Soukanh Mahalath, Vientiane mayor and senior ruling party member, in Pyongyang, North Korean state media reported.
More than 25,000 North Koreans have fled their impoverished country and live in South Korea, which gives such arrivals South Korean nationality. Their route of choice has been via China and Southeast Asia, but since Mr. Kim took power, Pyongyang has tightened its borders to prevent defections.
The number of North Koreans escaping to the South tumbled 44% in 2012 from a year earlier, South Korean government figures show. Pyongyang has also increased punishment for repatriated defectors and stepped up efforts to reduce corruption among border guards that accept bribes to let defectors pass, according to activists and recent defectors.
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- ASIA NEWS
- May 31, 2013, 6:49 a.m. ET
SEOUL—South Korea rejected Laos’s account of how Seoul responded to the detention and eventual repatriation of nine North Korean refugees from the Southeast Asian nation this week, saying its diplomats sought to protect the defectors from the day of their detainment.
Laotian foreign ministry officials have argued that the South Korean Embassy in Laos made no attempt to help the escapees after their arrest about three weeks ago near the Chinese border until their deportation on Monday. The ministry repeated its position on Friday amid criticism the country endangered the refugees by handing them over to North Korean officials.
A senior South Korean government official said Friday that the South Korean Embassy in Laos alerted the central Laos government to the detention of the group after one of the two South Korean guides held with the refugees contacted the embassy.
Official requests, verbal and written, to assist the group were filed on the same day at the ministries of public security, in charge of immigrant detainment, and foreign affairs, according to the South Korean official. The Laotian ministry of public security couldn’t be reached for comment.
In an interview with a Korean national daily, Lee Gun-tae, the South Korean ambassador to Laos, said the Laotian authorities had assured his staff that the group would be handed over to their custody.
It is thought to be the first time Laos has handed over defectors to North Korea for repatriation, breaking what a former South Korean diplomat to Laos called an unofficial agreement between two nations to let the escapees go to a third country, often Thailand, before traveling to South Korea. Now assumed to be back in North Korea, the refugees face harsh punishment such as hard labor or imprisonment, according to human rights activists and defectors.
Human rights activists are also concerned that the move by Laos sets a precedent that may make it impossible for future North Korean refugees to transit through the country, a common route for those fleeing the North via China.
An accurate account of diplomatic activity during the weeks spent inside a Vientiane detention center by the group of defectors aged 15 and 23 has been elusive due to fundamental disagreements between South Korea and Laos.
The Laotian foreign ministry officials said on Thursday that the ministry’s notice to the South Korean Embassy about the refugee group’s detainment was left unanswered. The first official contact, the officials say, took place earlier this week between the Laotian vice foreign minister and the South Korean ambassador, after the group was en route to Pyongyang.
The U.N. agency in charge of refugee issues on Thursday urged Laos to adhere to the principle of “non-refoulement,” meaning the persecuted should not be returned to the persecutor country.