Nine young refugees from North Korea reached Laos on May 10 after a dangerous journey across the Chinese border but were apparently sent back to the North, where they face internment or execution.
Both South and North Korea were informed shortly after the nine arrived in Laos.
Communist Laos eventually sided with North Korea, which took the unprecedented step of flying the defectors to China on Monday. This has prompted speculation that a prominent person was among the defectors.
◆ Diplomatic Maneuvering
According to South Korean activists on Tuesday, the seven male defectors aged 15 to 23 and two females managed to escape North Korea with the aid of a South Korean pastor identified only by his surname Jang and his wife. They were arrested as they attempted to cross the southern border of China into Laos.
Jang sought the aid of the South Korean embassy in Laos. The pastor claims embassy officials told him they would handle the matter and not to tell anyone else.
Jang and the defectors were taken to the Lao capital of Vientiane on May 16, but Laotian officials did not follow the unofficial procedure of quietly handing over to South Korea after one to two weeks. Instead, authorities there informed South Korean embassy officials on Monday that they had deported the nine defectors to a “neighboring country.”
The Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, a Seoul-based group that aids North Korean defectors, says South Korean embassy officials in Laos did not even meet the defectors once during their 18 days of internment in Laos.
The defectors were taken to the southern Chinese city of Kunming on Monday afternoon. "Several people with North Korean diplomatic passports are on the move with the defectors," said one source. "It appears that North Korean authorities are personally transporting them."
Before taking them out of Laos, North Korea supplied the defectors with passports and other legitimate travel documents. This has increased fears that the defectors will be taken back to the North.
◆ Flown Out
It is unprecedented for North Korea to intervene so quickly and fly defectors out of a third country. And it is unusual for Laos to allow North Korean officials to take them back aboard a plane.
"In the past, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il simply wrote off defectors as traitors and gave up on them, but crackdowns have intensified since Kim Jong-un came to power," said an informed source. "It appears that North Korean diplomats in Laos moved quickly in line with these changes."
The number of North Korean defectors who managed to get to South Korea totaled 2,706 in 2011, the year Kim Jong-il died, but fell to 1,509 in 2012 and stood at only 320 as of March this year.
Traditionally strong ties between the two stone-age communist regimes may have played a major role in the handling of the defectors, but critics say the slow response of the South Korean embassy officials is also to blame.
Since 90 percent of North Korean refugees pass through Laos, the incident may have a significant impact on future efforts to protect them.
Activists in South Korea in a statement Tuesday night accused the government here of inaction and putting the defectors' lives at risk. They added the defectors face "severe persecution" when they return to the North.