Protect North Korean defectors

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Protect North Korean defectors

Nine North Korean defectors were handed over to North Korean officials in Laos before being deported back to their home country via China after they fled their motherland. The South Korean Embassy in Laos should be held accountable for their tragic journey back home. As it turns out, the embassy was only notified of their repatriation by the Laos government after the North Korean Embassy in the country lobbied hard to send them back to the North. Considering Pyongyang’s recent intensified clampdown on defection, the South Korean government should reinforce protection for North Korean defectors heading to the South to avert such misfortune in the future.

The defectors were reportedly arrested by Laos security authorities on May 10. Though the Laos government has customarily sent North Korean defectors to the South Korean Embassy there, it didn’t do so this time. Despite the Laos authorities’ promise on May 20 to deliver them to our embassy, it delayed their delivery before abruptly notifying the embassy that it deported all of them to China, where the defectors had resided. That suggests the strong possibility of North Korean authorities playing a role in the repatriation.

Since the Laos government made the unprecedented move, our embassy needs to figure out why. It seems, though, that the embassy simply watched them be repatriated. As a relatively large number of defectors moved together with local guides, their movements must have been detected quite easily which must have increased the possibility that the Laos authorities would inform the North Korean Embassy. But our embassy didn’t pay special attention to the alarming development.

Even though North Korean defectors have to risk their lives on a dangerous journey, they have not received any substantial help from the government except occasional assistance from brokers or human rights groups. As the safety of most North Korean defectors is not protected by international law, the government understandably has trouble addressing the issue. Yet this is not a reason to neglect them.

The government must devise positive measures to protect North Korean defectors who aspire to come to the South. As they are our citizens, as stipulated by the Constitution, authorities must protect their safety.

If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone cannot solve the problem, the government should come up with other ideas. It must resolve the tragedy to help improve the human rights situation in the North even a little bit.
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