The North Korean regime's transport of nine young defectors from Laos to Pyongyang early this week resembled a full-scale espionage operation. The fact that the North moved so quickly and mobilized such resources to transport the defectors prompts speculation that it staged the stunt to warn others off making their way to freedom via Southeast Asia.
In an unprecedented move, the defectors were escorted by nine agents with diplomatic passports on the flights from the Lao capital of Vientiane to Kunming and Beijing in China, and from there to Pyongyang.
One agent was assigned to watch over each defector, and the North Korean embassy in Laos also issued legitimate travel documents for the young refugees and even obtained group visas for their stopovers in China. This was presumably done to prevent Beijing from detaining them, giving the government here or the international community time to intervene.
Speculation is rife why North Korea went to such lengths, but pundits mostly suggest the North wanted to do something to disrupt the established refugee trail via China, Laos and northern Thailand, where plenty of activists and commercial people smugglers assist defectors.
But other South Korean activists say it may be that one of the nine, whose ages range from 15 to 23, may have been a person of some significance, whom Pyongyang did not want to fall into Seoul's hands.
"There are rumors that one of them was the child of a North Korean agent who oversaw the kidnapping of Japanese citizens" during a bizarre campaign in the 1970s and 80s, said one activist.