Posts tagged ‘South Korea’

July 24, 2013

Laos Wins Refugee Bidding Game

Laos Wins Refugee Bidding Game

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Written by Steven Borowiec

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Vientiane figures out a way to get increased development aid

Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos’ repatriation of nine North Korean defectors, in front of the Laotian Embassy in Seoul on May 31, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-ji)

The brutal competition for influence between North and South Korea in Southeast Asia played itself out last week in Laos, when Seoul announced plans to more than double no-strings development aid to the Laotian government, to 4.84 billion won (US$4.83 million), more than twice the W2.04 billion from this year.

Analysts say that increased generosity appears related to a luckless group of nine young North Korean refugees who had escaped from the north and traveled thousands of kilometers across China to seek haven only to be repatriated by Laos in May despite efforts by South Korean diplomats to secure their custody. The rising aid grant is believed tied to making sure that doesn’t happen again.

There was considerable international outcry when the youths, aged 15 to 23, were sent back to the North. Human rights advocates and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees criticized the Laotian decision, noting that international law protects refugees from being forced to return to places where they face persecution.

The refugees, aged 15 to 23 years old, were part of a larger group of 15 who had been hiding in China for up to four years before they crossed into Laos. China doesn’t recognize refugees and routinely sends back any North Koreans they catch. The other seven managed to make it to Seoul.

Until the decision to send the North Koreans back where they came from, refugees and the groups that work with them had considered Laos a safe haven on refugee routes from China to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok. The refugees turned over to North Korea were expected to be punished severely, possibly tortured or even killed upon their return.

The implicit message in the decision by Laos to cooperate with North instead of South Korea was that Vientiane had more to gain by appeasing the North. With per-capita gross domestic product of US$1,399 according to the World Bank, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, largely dependent on the sale of natural resources to China and Thailand. It therefore looks to aid to help finance its development projects.

Seoul and Pyongyang have long competed for sway in Southeast Asia, and the South’s apparent ability to secure Laos’ cooperation on North Korean refugees now shows it has the upper hand with the ability to buy influence. The May incident constituted a loss of face for Seoul, which also faced harsh criticism at home from human rights groups that criticized what they described as only halfhearted efforts to gain custody of the refugees.

In the immediate aftermath, the South Korean government said it would devise plans to better coordinate with Southeast Asian countries to ensure the safety of more refugees. Seoul could now be hoping that after having received the promised aid, Laos will follow its wishes and prevent another such incident.

Southeast Asian countries like Laos are a common transit point for North Korean defectors after they flee through China on their way to Seoul. Both South and North Korea have an interest in gaining custody of the refugees: the North because it’s a loss of face for the refugees to be fleeing and the South because of the public backlash they face when failing to save the refugees from harsh treatment in the North.

In May, Laotian officials in Seoul said the North Koreans were handled according to protocol and without any special considerations. The Laotian embassy in Seoul said the refugees were apprehended because they had entered the country without documentation and that they handed them over to North Korea because they were all North Korean nationals.

That seems to contain some sophistry, since refugees have been using Laos as a way point to Bangkok and beyond for years.

Laos may have all along been trying to demonstrate its frustration with Seoul, whose support for the poor, landlocked country had been waning. South Korea’s aid to Laos had fallen to 2 billion won this year, after having been 5.8 billion won in 2009 and 6.8 billion won in 2011. It’s possible that Laos was trying to get Seoul’s attention by using the refugees as leverage. If that was indeed their intention, it appears to have worked.

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea has been trying restore relationships with countries it has histories of cooperation with, as was seen in last week’s failed effort to repair some of Cuba’s obsolete weaponry that was caught by authorities at the Panama Canal. Pyongyang, however, is extremely limited in what it can do internationally due to sanctions, which were strengthened in February of this year after the North’s third nuclear test.

Southeast Asia is a logical place for North Korea to look for opportunities because it has histories of productive relations with a few countries in the regions, including Laos, with which it has maintained diplomatic relations since 1974. Twice last year Laos hosted high-level officials from North Korea. Then-People’s Army Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Ho visited in May, followed by an August visit by Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong Nam.

At the time of Kim’s visit, Korean Central News Agency reported that officials from the two countries discussed increasing economic cooperation. “It is the steadfast stand of the DPRK government to develop the traditional relations of friendship with Laos,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

In September 2011, KCNA reported a visit by Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone for a summit with the late Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un reportedly participated in the meeting, which would have been his first official contact with a foreign head of state.

Regardless of North Korea’s efforts at diplomacy, South Korea is still a much bigger economic player in the region. Bilateral trade between South Korea and the Asean bloc was US$124.9 billion in 2011, making Asean South Korea’s second largest trade partner after China.

South Korea and Laos established diplomatic relations in 1974, though that only lasted until the following year when a communist government came to power in Vientiane. Relations were re-established in 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union when Laos began to look outward.

(Steven Borowiec,, is a writer based in South Korea)


Related News:

Laos Wins Refugee Bidding Game as Koreas Vie for SE Asia Influence

The Irrawaddy News Magazine-Jul 24, 2013
Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos’ repatriation of nine North Korean defectors, in front of the Laotian …
October 24, 2012

South Korean Construction will build three dams and a hydropower plant on Mekong River

S. Korean firms win $1bln hydro-plant deal in Laos

(AFP) – October 23rd, 2012

SK Construction will build three dams and a hydropower plant on Mekong River (AFP/File, Voishmel)

SEOUL — South Korean builder SK Engineering and Construction and state-run Korean Western Power have won a $1.0 billion deal to build and operate a hydropower plant in Laos, an official said on Tuesday.

Under the deal with the Laotian government, SK Construction will build three dams and a hydropower plant at the Mekong River in the southern plateau of Bolaven by 2018, an SK Construction spokesman told AFP.

The Xe-Namnoy plant — with an estimated capacity of 410 megawatts — will be owned and managed by Korean Western Power until 2045, after which it will be taken over by the Laotian authorities, he said.

The electricity generated at the plant will mostly be sold to Thailand while the Laos will earn an estimated 33 billion won ($30 million) annually in taxes and other fees, he added.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.

December 2, 2010

The War Games are over, but North Korea hasn’t blinked. The US is running out of options

Peter Foster

Peter Foster moved to Beijing in March 2009. He was formerly the Daily Telegraph’s South Asia Correspondent based New Delhi from 2004-2008. He is married with three children.


Last updated: December 1st, 2010

A crew member of the USS George Washington yesterday (Photo: AFP/Getty)

So, the USS George Washington is steaming back towards Japan after four days of joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, and here we still are. However, while the immediate danger of further conflagration may have passed, the situation on the Korean peninsula remains perilous.

Seoul has already announced further exercises for next week (it was a live fire drill that Pyongyang used as a pretext for last week’s bombardment) and is talking about stationing short-range missiles on the island that was attacked. This might be posturing on the part of the Lee government – which is under serious pressure at home not to “turn the other cheek” if the North attacks again – but it will certainly keep that disputed sea border on a hair-trigger for the forseeable future.

Equally worrying is the diplomatic deadlock which has put China flatly at odds with America (and South Korea and Japan) over how to handle Pyongyang. The divisions were made abundantly clear from the fact that the US, Japan and South Korea are planning talks in Washington (not Beijing) next week, while China has blocked all attempts to get a censure of North Korea at the UN in New York.

There has been much talk, following the WikiLeaks “revelations” this week, that China is ready to “abandon” North Korea, but you only have to look at China’s reaction to the events of the past week to see that that is a fanciful notion. (I don’t want to dissect WikiLeaks in detail as my colleague Richard Spencer has already done with great elegance and common sense here.)

The point is that right from the word go, the Chinese have acted as a virtual spokesman for the North Korean position. The houses were still burning when the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was at his rostrum calling for an “immediate return to the Six Party talks”.

This is exactly what Pyongyang wants. Kim Jong-il couldn’t have put it any better if it he’d scripted the remarks himself. This doesn’t mean China is happy with North Korea’s belligerence, but rather that from a self-interested perspective it sees that talks are the only way to put a lid on the Korean situation before it gets out of control and something really nasty happens.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are talking tough for now, but with war not an option, they don’t honestly have a better proposal. Their refusal to talk really comes down to a matter of timing – ie talks, yes, but not now, otherwise it would look like Pyongyang was shelling and torpedoing its way to the table.

But talk they must, however unpalatable that might be, and the longer the Korean hiatus continues, the greater the chance that an “accident will happen”. The Chinese are right about that.

And there is, of course, one final nuclear elephant in the room here. The Obama and Lee administrations want North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons in return for handsome aid packages. That was the deal that was almost struck a few years ago when the Six Party talks were on, but it fell apart when it became clear that Pyongyang wasn’t honouring its side of the bargain.

Trouble is, I haven’t spoken to a single North Korean expert or analyst – Chinese or American – who seriously believes that North Korea’s hyper-militarist regime would give up its strongest bargaining counter, viz. its nuclear ace. If you were Kim (Snr or Jnr) would you?

Which means the entire concept of an “aid for nukes” deal is built on a premise that all sides know to be false: hence the deadlock and the diplomatic vacuum which North Korea is increasingly filling with fire. It really is a game of high-stakes poker, with both sides – Pyongyang and Washington/Seoul – in their own ways trying to tough it out, in the hope that the other side will blink first.

Viewed from that perspective, China’s position of talks, based on realpolitik and throwing the dog a bone (instead of threatening to club him on the head) starts to look rather more sensible.




By David Pilling

Published: December 1 2010 20:36 | Last updated: December 1 2010 20:36

You can imagine the scene in the Oval Office. “Mr President,” says Kurt Campbell, US assistant secretary of state for east Asia. “I thought you should see this dispatch from Kathleen Stephens – you know, our ambassador to Seoul, Sir. She says that a guy named Chun Yung-woo, South Korea’s vice-foreign minister, was speaking to a Chinese official who said that, get this Sir, North Korea has ‘little value to China as a buffer state’.” Mr Campbell pauses to let the significance of the fourth-hand statement sink in.

As far as intelligence goes, this is pretty thin gruel. In fact, it is the very definition of Chinese whispers. This and similar snippets from WikiLeaks are by no means sufficient to conclude, as some have done, that there has been a significant change of heart in Beijing. Suddenly, we are led to believe, China has grown weary of its tantrum-prone North Korean ally and is prepared to prise lips from teeth – Mao Zedong’s favoured metaphor for the tight relationship – even at the cost of the North’s reunification with the South.

Such a conclusion would be hasty indeed. Recent actions by China point to a different conclusion, although it is fair to say that attitudes to Pyongyang have hardened following its two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Yet, significantly, the WikiLeaks cables dry up in February, a month before Pyongyang is thought to have torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives. If there had really been a change of heart, Beijing would surely have condemned that attack. Instead, it refused to accept the conclusions of an international inquiry fingering Pyongyang, and even rewarded Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, with an invitation to China.

Second, to interpret Mr Chun’s remarks as somehow representative of a broad consensus in Beijing is to misunderstand the fractured nature of China’s foreign policy. Michael Wesley, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, says that, as China’s global economic and political interests grow more complex, “it is becoming impossible to talk about a grand Chinese position on anything.”

On the North Korean issue, specifically, Mr Wesley sees a split between security-focused elements of the leadership, including those close to the People’s Liberation Army, and less “hardline” foreign policy technocrats. There may also be a generational divide, he says, between those of President Hu Jintao’s age, who hold “as an article of faith that China can’t let its ally down”, and younger Chinese officials embarrassed by a North Korea that looks like a parody of pre-1978 China.

Third, if anything, China has been seeking to reduce US influence in the region. Beijing has expressed anger at what it regards as US interference, for example in the South China Sea. A Wednesday editorial in the Global Times, an official tabloid, said of Washington’s recent efforts at closer regional engagement: “Since the US declared its return to Asia, the frequency of clashes in the Korean Peninsula has accelerated. Instead of reflecting on this, South Korea became more obsessed with its military alliance with the US.” This view is difficult to square with a more relaxed attitude towards reunification.

Fourth, Beijing seems to be trying to prod North Korea towards the type of economic measures that have driven its own success. John Delury, of the Asia Society, says the one consistent message from Chinese officials is that western sanctions do not work. Encouraging economic reform is consistent with a policy of trying to preserve North Korea as a going concern, rather than preparing for its collapse. Similarly, Beijing’s apparent facilitation of North Korean weapons exports to Iran, also suggested by WikiLeaks cables, hardly points to a Chinese clampdown on Pyongyang.

Fifth, Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, does not seem to harbour any illusions about the likelihood of reunification. True, this year, he floated the idea of a tax to prepare South Korea’s citizens for the possibility of a united Korea. But when I asked him about this last month, he stressed that the tax was more symbolic than real and that reunification would not happen for a very long time.

Finally, as Mr Delury points out, there may be a “good deal of wishful thinking” in seeking out Chinese officials prepared to express theoretical support for reunification. If there is one thing that should be clear from reading WikiLeaks cables, it is that diplomats are prepared to say one thing to their foreign interlocutors – and quite another behind their back.

Where does this leave us? Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo university, says the most interesting WikiLeaks revelation is that senior North Korean officials may have been defecting. Mr Myers argues that North Korea may well be on the brink of collapse, not because of succession issues but because of the regime’s need to provide military “victories”, the only thing it has to offer its people in the absence of a functioning economy. “The regime is basically on a collision course with the outside world,” he says, arguing that it will be gone within a decade. If he is right, one precondition of reunification – regime collapse – may be closer than we think. But that is a very far cry from saying that China would welcome it.

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