Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos'… (KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS )
VIENTIANE, Laos — Early last month, nine young North Korean defectors, guided by a South Korean pastor and his wife, thought they were on the last leg of a long escape.
Already, they’d traveled some 2,500 miles, sneaking from the northern tip of North Korea into China, then — in the most dangerous part of their journey — across much of eastern China. Next, they’d headed into Laos.
Over the years, this Southeast Asian nation has been a vital safe haven for defectors, with its Communist government quietly helping thousands reach South Korea. But this time Laos reversed course with little explanation, detaining the defectors for traveling without documents, then handing them over to North Korean agents, who whisked them away on a series of commercial flights back to Pyongyang.
The cooperation between Laos and North Korea blindsided aid workers and South Korean officials, who say that the North, under leader Kim Jong Un, is taking new forms of recourse against those who escape its borders.
During Kim’s 18 months in power, the North has cut defections nearly in half, according to South Korean government data. North Korea has tightened security on its own borders and sent agents into China to pose as and expose escapees. But until now, escapees who made it to Southeast Asia had remained relatively free from danger.
The case in Laos has sparked fears that the North, as part of that strategy, is also pressuring Southeast Asian governments to return defectors, though “we still don’t know for sure,” said one South Korean government official, requesting anonymity to discuss details of the case.
Analysts say the North views defections as a double-edged threat: Once out, escapees can testify about the country’s gulags and poverty. They can also send back money and information to family members, planting the seeds for others to defect via a labyrinth of safe houses and small churches operated by aid workers and Christian missionaries.
South Korean officials say they have little clue about whether Laos and North Korea will continue to cooperate in stopping defections, or even why they cooperated in this instance.
Laos, in a statement released by its foreign ministry, said it returned the nine to the North after its investigation found that they were victims of “human trafficking.” But activists, including some who worked with the nine escapees or know the pastor, strongly dispute that claim, and have drawn up their own personal theories to explain Laos’s behavior. They say the handoff could be the result of a diplomatic favor or a bribe.
“There may have been some financial incentive provided” by the North, said Suzanne Scholte, a well-known rights activist who was in touch with the pastor, adding that an investigation is necessary.
Either way, the case has prompted new concern among activists for those who escape the North, who depend on the governments of Southeast Asian countries — typically Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos — to help them seek asylum and resettle in South Korea.
The recent case of the nine young defectors made days of headlines in Seoul, not just because of the grim outcome but also because of the defectors’ back stories. Nearly all were orphans, between 15 and 23 years old, who’d crossed into China, starving and sickly. Some had parasite infections and had been eating out of trash cans in the North, Scholte said.
The escapees were eventually welcomed to a safe house hidden amid the apartment complexes of the neon-lit northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, where they could rest and recover. The safe house was operated by a pastor and his wife, according to Scholte and another rights activists who knows the pastor, who requested anonymity to describe what he calls a sensitive case. The couple had helped previous groups escape successfully, relying on money from private donations.
Rights activists say that perhaps no group of escapees has ever made it farther from the North only to be dragged back. Some non-governmental organizations put part of the blame on the South Korean government, saying its officials underestimated the willingness of Laos and North Korea to work together and failed to meet with the group during the 18 days between its detention and the hand-off to the North.
South Korea says it was notified by the pastor on the day the group was first detained, but that Laos never granted its diplomats a meeting with the escapees.
A winding path to freedom
Laos is an oblong landlocked country of just 6 million people, bordering China on its north and wedged along the sides by Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. Its capital city has a small community of Koreans, nearly all from the South, and a half-dozen Korean restaurants. Both Koreas have embassies here, and the North’s has a glass display case by its entrance showing photos of Kim Jong Un during various public outings around Pyongyang, including a visit with schoolkids.