Archive for May, 2013

May 31, 2013

Seoul Rejects Laos’s Account of North Korea Defectors

Laos Returns Refugees to North Korea

  • Updated May 31, 2013, 7:12 a.m. ET


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Laos Returns Refugees

A Failed Escape

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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.


Seoul Rejects Laos’s Account of North Korea Defectors

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For the first time, Laos handed a group of North Korean refugees over to Pyongyang, rejecting criticism that the move endangers their lives. Alastair Gale tells the WSJ’s Jeffrey Ng what this means for future defectors attempting to escape via the So

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.

May 30, 2013

US concern over N Korea refugees ‘returned by Laos’

BBC News - Asia

US concern over N Korea refugees ‘returned by Laos’

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30 May 2013 Last updated at 00:39 ET

This picture taken on May 29, 2013 shows an activist of a civic group for North Korean refugees holding up a placard during a rally urging China to stop repatriating North Korean defectors outside the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. PHOTO: AFP

The US says it is concerned by reports that China has repatriated nine North Korean refugees deported by Laos.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed Foreign Ministry officials, says the group were flown back to Pyongyang on Tuesday.

It said the group were detained in Laos earlier this month and handed over to China, despite Seoul’s appeals.

China traditionally repatriates North Korean refugees, ruling them economic migrants.

The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, left their country via China for Laos in April, Yonhap reported.

Laos authorities sent them to China on Monday – local reports said to Kunming – and they were put on an Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang on Tuesday, the agency said.

European Pressphoto Agency. North Korean defectors and human rights group activists shout during a rally against the government’s North Korean defectors relief policy in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Seoul on Wednesday.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry has not yet commented formally on the case.

But an unnamed ministry official told Yonhap news agency that South Korea had asked UN human rights agencies to help ensure the safety of nine refugees.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, accused both Laos and China of showing blatant disregard for the group’s welfare by returning them to North Korea.

“These three governments will share the blame if further harm comes to these people,” Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said.

In a statement, the US State Department urged “all countries in the region to co-operate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories”.

Most North Korean refugees leave via China and head for nations in South East Asia, from where they can get to South Korea – which provides financial assistance and training.

Last year, just over 1,500 North Koreans arrived in the South, official figures showed. Rights groups say refugees who are repatriated can face punishment and imprisonment.

May 29, 2013

Thank You For Your Serviced: Lost plane’s crew returns from Laos — 48 years later

Tuesday, May. 28, 2013

Lost plane’s crew returns from Laos — 48 years later

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Sun-Star Washington Bureau

The single casket holding the remains of six airmen in Spooky 21 shot down over Laos is brought in on a caisson by the Air Force Honor Guard, July 9, 2012 at Arlington Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. The men were lost December 24, 1965, and their remains were finally recovered in 2010 and 2011. They were buried with full military honors at Arlington. (Andre Chung/MCT)

ARLINGTON, Va. Nearly half a century passed before the suspected remains of six airmen made the journey from a rice paddy in southeastern Laos to a forensics lab near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

But once those remains arrived, the experts preparing to study and identify them knew that at best the men were only halfway home.

Getting them all the way would be a challenge.

The crew had vanished on Christmas Eve 1965, when their U.S. cargo plane-turned-gunship, call sign Spooky 21, apparently had been shot from the sky during a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It took searchers decades to find what they believed to be wreckage from the plane.

And after a decade of excavations in a rice paddy tucked between steep Laotian hillsides, recovery teams had come away with a small amount of debris that they hoped were bones. But even if they were, they had no way of knowing if the bones belonged to the crew members, or even if they were human.

And what they found wasn’t much.

Take two hands, cup them together, and then fill them with dry, blackened chips and slivers of material. That’s what investigators had left to study after the lab run by the military’s Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command sifted through the debris and figured out that some of it was rock and wood.

Only one piece in that small pile of material looked vaguely human — a single, broken tooth.

Sherrie Hassenger poses with a picture of her husband, Arden Hassenger, in her home in Lebanon, Oregon, May 21, 2013. Arden was killed when his aircraft crashed in Laos while conducting operations in support of the Vietnam War. Hassenger says she’s never really gotten over the loss of her love. (Ethan E. Rocke/MCT) Ethan E. Rocke / MCT

Forensic anthropologist Robert Maves was running the investigation of the materials once they arrived in Hawaii. Maves, 52, is a serious man. At JPAC for 18 years, he speaks about reuniting missing service members with their families as a moral obligation.

Frequently when remains arrive, lab workers have more to go on than what the suspected Spooky 21 evidence offered. A full skeleton might be rare; entire bones are not.

But this was not a Hollywood-style forensic cop show where the mystery is solved inside an hour, between commercials. To the casual eye, a handful of bone chips wouldn’t even look like bone chips, especially if they’d been in a fire and were discolored.

The first chore was to identify what they might be. While not ideal, bone chips have helped to identify other lost service members. Even small ones have meaning.

Maves’ team determined that these were, indeed, bone chips. They were identified as “post-cranial”; they came from the back of a skull. It was a small victory because they could move on to the second stage of the investigation: Whose skull? “It was time to check to see if we could pull DNA,” Maves recalled.

Final crew

The crew on Spooky 21’s flight had been promoted, several times, since it vanished 48 years ago. By the time it reached Arlington, that crew consisted of Col. Derrell Jeffords, pilot, 40, of Florence, S.C.; Col. Joseph Christiano, navigator, 43, of Rochester, N.Y.; Lt. Col. Dennis L. Eilers, co-pilot, 27, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Chief Master Sgts. William K. Colwell, 44, of Glen Cove, N.Y.; Arden K. Hassenger, 32, of Lebanon, Ore.; and Larry C. Thornton, 33, of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The military had been looking for the crew from Spooky 21 since it disappeared. Jeffrey Christiano had been waiting his entire life.

Now 49, but only 2 when his father left for South Vietnam, he’d chased his father’s ghost throughout his childhood. He married at age 22, seeking what he’d longed for since his father vanished, but it didn’t last.

“I just wanted to be intact,” he said. “I’d felt a hole in my childhood. I kept trying, and failing, to fill it. I just really wanted my dad.” Knowing there were many relatives with similar tales, Maves never let himself forget just how high the stakes were.

Spooky 21 vanished two decades before the first DNA “fingerprinting.” By the time the remains arrived in Hawaii, DNA testing had become a routine identification tool. But when the crew disappeared, the concept had been so new. It had only been 12 years since James Watson and Francis Crick told the world what DNA looked like; essentially, a spiral staircase.

The surest identification is made when separate samples of a person’s DNA are compared with each other. But the military didn’t have DNA samples of the Spooky 21 crew. The next best thing is to test the DNA of a person’s children, as they have the greatest genetic chance of carrying the same traits.

Maves’ team arranged for the necessary cheek swabs as it prepared to try to extract DNA from the bone chips. But a big obstacle loomed.

“The report from the field was that the plane was smoking as it fell to earth,” Maves said. “And we could see the chips had been subjected to flames. The evidence of fire was troubling.”

DNA doesn’t normally survive heat more intense than 600 degrees. As the lab tried to recover DNA from the chips, “we estimated the fire to have burned at more than 1,000 degrees,” Maves said.

Still, they had to pursue every option. But it turned out to be fruitless.

The official entry in the Spooky 21 case file stated: “No DNA possible due to size and conditions.” Without DNA, the JPAC identification team was down to one final shot at identifying at least one crew member: the broken tooth.

Maves had the dental X-rays for each member of the crew. But his job suddenly became easier when he realized that he didn’t have to bother comparing the records for five of them, because one crew member was missing his first left upper molar and four others had fillings in theirs.

Only one showed an intact left upper first molar: Hassenger.

The next step was obvious. They needed to make an X-ray of the broken tooth to try to match it against the exact angles of the molar in Hassenger’s dental records.

On Sept. 22, 2011, they compared them. The match was perfect, in the way that any two maps of the same piece of geography would match.

And that was it.

After 46 years of loss and searching, this was success. Hassenger, at least, finally had come home.

“The available evidence suggests that Col. Derrell Jeffords and his five member crew died on 24 December, 1965 when their AC-47 gunship crashed in Savannakhet Province, Laos,” military records state.

But there was one important task to complete before the U.S. military had truly brought the Spooky 21 crew home.

Closure at last

The morning of July 9, 2012, is overcast.

The white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery seem to march off into the mist in every direction from plot number 10047. This will be one of 24 burials on this summer’s day at the national military cemetery. The plot, 7 feet by 3 feet, has been dug 8 feet deep.

About 168 square feet of dirt has been removed to make room for the remains of six men, which will share a single silver casket. What was found two years ago, almost half a century after they had vanished, would barely fill a coffee mug.

The caisson crests the hill near the gravesite in a light rain, as the Air Force Band plays “Going Home,” a piece based on Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Six airmen walk beside the casket; behind them, 18 family members: two wives, 15 children and one niece. They will receive American flags, folded into tight triangles.

MIAs no more

Jeanne Jeffords, wife of Derrell Jeffords, later would sum up her feelings in a note to friends: “Those 6 wonderful men are no longer MIA (missing in action), they are finally home.”

Even now, Jeffrey Christiano said that Christmas Eve, the date his father and the others disappeared so long ago, remains a tough but vital time. His mom always made an extra effort to make sure the kids didn’t dwell in sorrow on what for many is the happiest night of the year. He thinks that effort drew his family even tighter.

Now he and his siblings keep that same spirit alive.

Christiano also said that he learned something at the burial that he hadn’t expected.

“My earliest memory of my father is clinging to the door frame and shouting, ‘Daddy, don’t go!’ as he deployed to Vietnam,” Christiano said. “But really, I don’t know if those are my memories, or the way my mind interprets what I’ve been told time and again by others about how I reacted as he left that day.

“See, the thing is, my brothers and sisters, they were older. They knew my dad. They knew what he smelled like, what he looked like. They knew what made him smile and what made him angry. They knew him. I didn’t, or at least I don’t remember knowing him. So people ask me if the burial was finally closure for me, if it helped me put an end to the story of me and my dad.

“But that’s not it. July 9, 2012, was the day we finally met, really. It wasn’t closure. After 47 years, it was the beginning of my story with my dad.”



The State-May 26, 2013 25, 2013
remains of Olson’s crew, lost in the wreck of a spy plane over Laos. … of its plans to travel to Laos and return with remains the Air Force had
May 24, 2013

From Laos to Richmond, local man honored by White House for environmental activism

From Laos to Richmond, local man honored by White House for environmental activism

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By Robert Rogers
This Story was from Contra Costa Times
Posted:   05/24/2013 09:29:56 AM PDT
Updated:   05/24/2013 10:32:07 AM PDT

RICHMOND — When Lipo Chanthanasak was honored last month at the White House for his environmental justice work, he felt he wasn’t alone.

“I didn’t take the award as just for me,” Chanthanasak said through an interpreter. “It was for all low-income communities fighting together. I received the honor for all people in Richmond.”

The 73-year-old Laotian emigre only speaks Khmu, a tribal dialect from his native Northern Laos, but his words have stirred people in Richmond since 1991. He has been a forceful critic of Chevron’s local refinery and of fossil fuel consumption generally, and is a leading member of The Asian Pacific Environmental Network’s (APEN) local chapter.

For his efforts, Chanthanasak was one of 12 recipients of the Champions of Change Award, given to people each week by The White House Council on Environmental Quality for their work raising awareness about climate change and advocating for renewable energy development. While at the White House, he also took part in a panel discussion with other award recipients.

Chanthanasak was honored again Thursday night with a ceremony at the Nevin Community Center.

“Community members like Lipo are leading the way to healthy, safe and prosperous communities for all of us,” Roger Kim, executive director of APEN, said in a prepared statement.

Chanthanasak’s small stature and soft-spoken, native tongue — he came to the United States in his 50s with little formal education and never learned English — belies a lifetime of fervent idealism and moral righteousness.

He grew up in Phoualn, a tiny village of about 200 people in Northern Laos. During the Vietnam War, he fought with a guerrilla unit alongside American troops and the CIA. When Laos fell to the communists in 1975, Chanthanasak fled to Thailand.

He returned to Laotian jungles in 1977 to join the resistance movement. In 1985, Chanthanasak returned to Thailand and landed in a refugee camp, he said.

Finally allowed into the United States in 1991, Chanthanasak faced a new reality that bore echoes of the old.

“My community faced chemical pollution, and I saw that those who suffer most are the low-income people,” Chanthanasak said. “But here they stand up and demand change. The injustice creates the resistance.”

For years, Chanthanasak has marched at rallies and spoken at City Council meetings, always with the aid of an interpreter. His dogged but largely unsung work was finally recognized in Washington, D.C., which he hopes will only intensify the spotlight on communities that suffer on the front lines of what he calls “fossil fuel dependency.”

APEN has been among Chevron’s staunchest critics, relentlessly prodding the energy giant to reduce emissions and convert more of its operations from fossil fuel refining to renewable energy production. Chanthanasak has been a key link between the group and the city’s sizable Laotian community.

“Richmond is a community that can help lead the world toward renewable energy that doesn’t harm health and the environment,” he said. “We are proving that we can produce local clean energy good for the economy and the environment, and we can continue to push our governments in that direction.”

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or and follow

May 23, 2013

burning issue: Fresh ideas needed in ties with Laos


Fresh ideas needed in ties with Laos

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Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation May 22, 2013 1:00 am

Relations between Thailand and Laos in the 21st century have already moved toward a new era, which requires not only trust and cooperation, but also a new vision to make the links mutually beneficial to people of both countries.

The joint cabinet meeting between the two governments jointly chaired by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong over the weekend in Chiang Mai reflected no clear vision for their ties in a new era. It simply followed up work which previous governments had initiated.

Many visionary and capable Thai leaders in the past were able to open new chapters in relations with Laos. Former Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanant, together with Laotian leader Kraisone Pomvihan, managed to end mistrust in 1979 and brought the two brotherly countries into close relations, despite their different political ideologies.

Conservative forces in Bangkok halted the good ties with two military clashes in 1984 and 1987 due to boundary conflicts during Prem Tinsulanonda’s years – but such sour relations lasted for only a short time.

Visionary leader Chatichai Choonhavan dramatically led relations between Thailand and Laos into a genuine new era as he declared the policy to transform Indochina’s battle zone into a market zone at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. Such a policy has been fundamental for the relationship until now.

Anand Panyarachun and Chuan Leekpai during their time guided relations with Laos to regionalism and regional integration when they introduced economic liberalisation, connection and integration with Asean to the two countries.

Thaksin Shinawatra might have his problems domestically but he was famous in many neighbouring countries for his brainchild projects linking them in the Mekong basin. His initiative, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), is still active in developing infrastructure as well as providing assistance to Laos. The latest summit of ACMECS took place with participation by Yingluck in Vientiane in March this year.

However, there has been no new policy initiative in relation to Laos since the 2006 military coup, as many governments over the years since then have been busy with domestic conflicts.

This government under Yingluck is no exception. Although the current government is relatively free from domestic political tension, it offers no policy initiative for ties with Laos. The joint statement signed by foreign ministers of the two countries reflected no new vision for future relations.

One part of the statement is even locked into relations of the 1980s. It stated that Thailand would not allow any dissidents to use Thailand as their shelter or as a launching PAD against the government in Vientiane. The anti-communist movement in Thailand has not been active since the beginning of this century, but Laos continued to worry over dissidents and mistrusted Thailand.

This government was supposed to have a policy initiative on economic relations with Laos, but it was not to be. Projects on economic and transportation links were mostly created after Chatichai, Chuan and Thaksin’s administrations.

The two countries have learned already that many road links and bridges were under-utilised due to fewer economic activities in the area. Border-crossing transportation was obstructed by bureaucracy, but ideas to liberate it have never been translated into tangible projects. The schedule to implement single-stop inspection services has been repeatedly delayed.

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