Laos sends nine young defectors back to China

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Laos sends nine young defectors back to China

Nine young North Koreans trying to defect through Indochina were detained in Laos earlier this month and sent back to China Monday, according to Seoul government officials yesterday.

The seven males and two females between the ages of 15 and 22 were detained in Laos for around two weeks before being sent back to China. They now face the danger of being deported back to North Korea, North Korean human rights activists based in Laos said yesterday.

If they are sent back to North Korea, the defectors can face imprisonment or worse punishments.

According to the activists based in Laos, the group of defectors didn’t know each other until they crossed the border with China from North Hamgyong Province to escape hunger and starvation. They ended up in the Chinese city of Dandong, bordering North Korea, for around a year with the support of a Korean missionary couple.

Last month, a Korean minister and his wife surnamed Joo volunteered to help them defect to South Korea, the activists said. The group traveled through Yunnan Province and into Laos via a car on May 9. But as they drove toward the Laotian capital of Vientiane, they were pulled over and questioned by Laotian officials.

Other guides might have tried to pay off the official, but the Joos contacted the South Korean Embassy in Laos.

A North Korean rights activist in Laos who requested anonymity said, “After the embassy was contacted, rumors circulated regarding the defectors in Laos and North Korean officials became active in the case.”

Through diplomatic channels, the South Korean Embassy in Laos requested local officials to surrender the defectors into their custody to no avail.

The Joos and the nine defectors were detained, and on Monday South Korean officials were informed that the defectors will be sent back to China.

“It appears North Korean officials pressured the related nation’s government to takes measures to deport the defectors” back to North Korea from China, a South Korean foreign affairs official said.

The route from China through Laos is a key route for North Korean defectors to get to South Korea, often through other countries in Southeast Asia.

According to the latest data disclosed by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, 501 minors defected from North to South Korea in 2011. Some of the minors defect on their own without parents or other relatives.

According to a senior foreign affairs official, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a meeting with other officials Monday night regarding the nine defectors to come up with emergency measures.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday declined to comment on the case to protect the young defectors.

China’s deportation of North Korean defectors back to their home county has been a point of contention between Beijing and Seoul. The case arises as President Park Geun-hye heads to Beijing in late June for her first summit with President Xi Jinping.


By Jung Won-yeob, Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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