9 young defectors dragged back
According to diplomatic sources at the Korean Embassy in Beijing, the defectors, aged between 15 and 22, were handed over to a group of North Korean officials on Monday by the Laos government in Vientiane.
The North Korean officials moved the seven male and two female defectors by air to the Chinese city of Kunming and then flew them to Beijing, where they arrived around 10:30 p.m. on Monday.
“We conclude that the defectors, kicked out of Laos, were sent to North Korea yesterday afternoon [Tuesday] by an Air Koryo flight,” a South Korean government official told reporters yesterday.
Defectors repatriated to North Korea face imprisonment or worse punishments.
The nine North Koreans were being shepherded by a pair of married South Korean ministers across Indochina to apply for asylum in the United States when they were caught in the northern part of Laos May 10. The ministers were held but then released.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry came under fire for neglecting the defectors for the 18 days they were detained in Laos.
“The two ministers asked the Korean Embassy in Laos to meet with the defectors when they were detained in the immigration office for 18 days, but there wasn’t a single meeting,” a group of civic activists for human rights in North Korea said in a joint statement yesterday. “The government should investigate officials working in the Korean Embassy in Laos and demand they take responsibility for this.”
Sources told the JoongAng Ilbo it was true that South Korean Embassy workers failed to meet the defectors.
The South Korean officials asked the Laos government for a meeting, and the Laotians said they would hand the defectors over to the embassy soon. Three days later they were told to “please wait.”
Around 1 p.m. Monday, some Laotian officials visited the defectors and said they would bring them to a meeting with the South Korean Embassy. The South Korean couple heard that news and asked the Korean Embassy if that was true. The embassy was informed around 6 p.m. that the defectors had been sent to China.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se of the South convened an emergency meeting Monday night, but it was too late.
During the 18 days the Southern government did nothing, Northern officials were busy trying to get their hands on the defectors, civic activists say.
“I heard North Korea strongly demand Laos expel the defectors,” a civic activist for human rights of North Koreans working in Laos told the JoongAng Ilbo.
According to the activist, North Korea prepared passports and 10-day Chinese tourist visas for the defectors so that they wouldn’t be caught by Chinese immigration during their transit in Kunming and Beijing.
The Chinese government is pleading ignorance of the affair.
A source said China reportedly says it “didn’t receive a single notice from Laos in regard to the deportation of the North Korean defectors.”
“There was no legal basis for the Chinese government to question or detain the defectors,” an official at the Korean Embassy in Beijing said. “For China, they were just ordinary travelers who had normal travel itineraries and visas.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry emphasized it was unusual for Laos to return North Korean refugees to Pyongyang.
“We think the strange part of this case is not a lack of effort by our embassy officials, but the unusual response from North Korea,” the ministry official said. “North Korea strongly pressed the local government [Laos] to change its previous practice and surrender the defectors to them.”
By Jeong Won-yeob, Kim Hee-jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]