What Went Wrong in Laos?

The Laotian government deported nine North Korean defectors on Monday who had crossed the border from China hoping to find freedom in South Korea. They were between 14 and 23 years of age, seven boys and two girls.

They are probably orphans who survived in China by begging for food. What has been confirmed so far is that the young refugees were transported by plane by North Korean agents with diplomatic papers and landed in Guangzhou, China. What happened to them since is not known.

Until recently, Laos detained North Korean defectors for one to two weeks and then quietly handed them over to South Korea if they wished to go there.

Human rights groups assisting North Korean defectors say a Korean missionary couple who guided the defectors complained that South Korean embassy officials in Laos simply told them to wait and did nothing else. Frustrated, the couple asked for the phone numbers of the U.S. embassy in Laos.

The Foreign Ministry here claims it contacted Lao authorities every day urging them not to deport the defectors, but that is hard to believe. If they did, the mystery is why Laos suddenly decided to hand the refugees over to North Korea despite its usual practice of quietly handing them over to South Korea.

Inaction by the embassy seems a more plausible explanation, since this would not the first time that North Korean defectors were surprised by cold and inconsiderate treatment from South Korean diplomats.

If the nine young North Koreans are sent back to the North, they could be being publicly executed to set an example. Since Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea in 2012, he ordered troops to root out defections even by shooting refugees. He has rewarded border guards who catch defectors trying to cross the border into China and sent out agents to search for defectors in China.

The number of North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea fell from some 2,700 in 2011 to around 1,500 last year and only 320 so far this year. They face even greater threats to their lives now if they are caught, so the government must do everything it can to alert the international community to their plight and prevent them being executed.

The government must find out why Laos suddenly abandoned usual practice and decided to deport the defectors. An investigation must establish why the South Korean embassy failed to prevent their deportation and what steps it took to secure their release.

It is simply heartbreaking to hear that North Korean orphans had to beg on the streets of China to survive. It would be unforgivable if it is found that they were taken back to the North to face death or internment because of the mistakes or indifference of South Korean diplomats.

englishnews@chosun.com / May 29, 2013 13:00 KST