May 31, 2013 13:26
Nine young North Korean defectors on their way to freedom in South Korea were deported from Laos on Tuesday under guard of North Korean agents with diplomatic passports. As late as Wednesday, a full day after they had been taken back to the North, the South Korean Foreign Ministry mumbled something about trying to locate them and maybe prevent them from being sent back to the repressive country, where they face internment or execution.
Now the ministry claims it did everything possible to help them.
A South Korean missionary who was detained in Laos while escorting the young refugees said he informed the South Korean embassy in Vientiane on May 20 that two men with North Korean accents had interrogated them in detention.
He says embassy officials told him not to worry and said Lao authorities were just trying to determine whether the defectors were really trying to escape from the North. "I called the embassy again on May 22 and asked if the defectors could escape to either the South Korean or U.S. embassies, and they told me it would be too risky."
Instead of trying to help, it seems the South Korean diplomats ended up shooing the defectors along to their doom.
The young refugees, who are between 15 and 23, spent 18 days in Laos without meeting a single South Korean embassy official. The missionary says an embassy official finally came to meet him "when I told them that the kids had been deported."
The ministry claims Lao authorities did not allow South Korean diplomats to meet the defectors. Yet they allowed the missionary to meet a local contact three times although he was detained along with the defectors, raising very strong suspicions that the embassy officials were none too eager to get involved.
The ministry says Laos was originally in favor of sending the defectors to Seoul, as it has done, quietly, many times, but suddenly changed its mind on May 23. This was the day Soukhanh Mahalath, the secretariat of the Laotian People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee, was visiting Pyongyang. There is likelihood that Soukanh's visit played a major role in the Laotian government’s decision to deport the defectors. But did South Korean embassy officials have no inkling of that visit? That would suggest they are completely inept.
China allegedly rejected South Korean pleas to prevent the young defectors from being sent back to North Korea while they remained on Chinese territory en route to the North. If such pleas were really made, as the ministry claims -- confusingly, since at the same time it claimed to be trying to track them down -- it would have been very inconsiderate of Beijing to ignore them ahead of President Park Geun-hye's trip to Beijing next month.
But in that case the embassy in Beijing also needs to be held responsible for failing to make the case strongly enough, perhaps by using Park's looming trip as leverage.
Diplomats are responsible for defending South Korea's national interests just as soldiers protect its physical borders. The way they bungled the Lao incident brings to mind a soldier snoozing at his frontline post.
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