3 defectors nabbed by Vietnam and sent back

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3 defectors nabbed by Vietnam and sent back

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry is under fire for an inert response to Vietnam’s arrest and repatriation of three North Korean defectors trying to reach the South this week.

According to the human rights organization that arranged the defectors’ escape, six North Koreans were stopped by Vietnamese military authorities in the province of Ha Tinh after crossing the border with China on Monday.

One man in his 30s and two women in their 20s were captured and placed under arrest while the other three managed to escape, said a member of the organization.

The organization and the defectors’ families contacted the South Korean Embassy in Vietnam to ask for Seoul’s help in preventing the defectors’ expulsion to China, where they would be at risk of being repatriated to the North.

But according to the Chosun Ilbo, which first broke the story on Thursday, the embassy referred them to the Foreign Ministry. It told the organization that it was working to help the arrested defectors and repeated that they should continue to wait for a response.

The three defectors were eventually sent back to China on Wednesday, the report said.

The organization member claimed the Foreign Ministry had not acted to rescue the defectors despite the fact that the Vietnamese military official who detained them said they would be released if someone could verify their identities as South Korean, the report added.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday dismissed the report as inaccurate, saying it made due diplomatic efforts to verify the facts behind the case and prevent their forced repatriation.

“The [South Korean] government has been making efforts to help defectors overseas go to places that they want without repatriation,” the ministry said in a text message sent to reporters.

“We ask for your understanding as we cannot delineate details about the defectors in consideration of their safety and diplomatic relations with the country [they are in],” it added.

In a separate regular briefing Thursday, ministry spokesman Kim In-chul said the matter was entirely separate from any questions about diplomatic competence recently raised by the media.

Baek Yoon-jung, head of a Foreign Ministry task force called the Korean Community Team, which is meant to support North Koreans trying to resettle in the South, elaborated further on the actions it had taken to help the defectors in question.

The agency contacted Vietnam’s public safety department, other government officials and even border defense forces to help the defectors, Baek said, though those efforts appeared to have been in vain. “We kept in communication with the defectors’ guide in China and the broker who helped them escape through Wednesday morning,” she added.

According to Baek, the three who escaped are currently trying to reach the South through a different route.

Critics have argued that the Seoul government has been taking a low-key approach to such humanitarian issues to avoid irking Pyongyang amid its push for inter-Korean rapprochement and cooperation.

But Baek’s words suggest the Foreign Ministry tried to help the defectors, but that the Vietnamese government chose to expel them, presumably in light of its relations with the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s trip to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, in late February for his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump was the first time Pyongyang’s head of state visited Vietnam in over 50 years, and is believed to have warmed relations between the two countries.

An official at the South’s Unification Ministry, which oversees defectors who have been settled in the South, said it could not comment on defector issues occurring abroad but added that Seoul welcomes any North Korean defectors wanting to come to the South.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, SARAH KIM [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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