Nine young North Korean defectors have been repatriated from Laos after trying to reach South Korea, signaling that the Pyongyang regime is not only cracking down on its citizens who try to escape, but it’s getting cooperation from Laos.
Laos, a small, landlocked country squeezed between China, Thailand and Vietnam (see map), is a major transit hub for North Korean defectors, and had been thought of as a safe country for them to pass through from China to South Korea. The fact that Laos complied – some say for the first time – with the North on the issue of defectors may show that North Korea is successfully strengthening its foreign relations at a time when its main ally China is showing signs of impatience.
North Korea has a history of productive relations with some countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, and could be looking to rekindle those ties to lessen its isolation.
“Since Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea has been trying to restore relationships with countries that they’ve had relationships with in the past, or that seem neutral to them,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Laotian authorities apparently disregarded requests by South Korea to hand the defectors over to their embassy. The defectors were accompanied by at least one North Korean official and flown out of the country, according to reports. The nine defectors, seven men and two women, believed to be between 15 and 23 years old, fled North Korea to bordering China in April where they traveled south and crossed into Laos only to be apprehended by police earlier this month.
Laotian officials said they handled the case according to protocol and without any special considerations.
“The nine defectors were apprehended by the police because they entered the country without documentation. The police then turned them over to the North Korean embassy because they are all North Korean citizens,” Khantivong Somlith, an official at the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, told The Christian Science Monitor by phone. Mr. Somlith added that the defectors went back to North Korea via China because there is no direct flight from the Laotian capital Vientiane to Pyongyang.
Activists say North Koreans caught leaving the country without permission receive harsh punishments and could be sent to one of the country’s labor camps.
Because of this, human rights groups have been asking the Chinese government to recognize the defectors as refugees and asylum seekers, instead of economic migrants and to not repatriate them. Activists also lobby the South Korean government to more aggressively seek custody of North Korean defectors from the governments of third countries such as China or Laos.
Some 25,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea since the end of the Korean War. Most flee into China, and then arrange bus travel through local contacts to the south. They may then proceed overland through the mountainous jungles of Laos in an effort to reach the South Korean embassy in Bangkok, which sends them to South Korea and offers them citizenship, training, and financial assistance.
Thailand, Mongolia, and Vietnam have been more sympathetic than Laos in the handling of North Korean defectors who come through the country, however this is believed to be the first time Laos has handed over defectors to the North.
Activists in Seoul worry that the incident presages more complication in an already difficult journey for defectors.
“We think this will affect the number of defectors that make it out of China and to South Korea. Laos has been a key part of the route for defectors, so maybe now some of them will be too scared to go there and won’t attempt to make it to Thailand,” says Kim Eun-young, senior program officer at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO in Seoul.
North Koreans continue to arrive in South Korea, but recently they have been coming in smaller numbers. The Kim Jong-un regime has made it a priority to discourage North Koreans from attempting to escape. Over the past couple of years, there has been a drop in the number of North Korean defectors who make it to Seoul, apparently because of stricter border control implemented by the North Korean government. From 2011 to 2012, there was a 44 percent drop in the number that arrived in Seoul, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. Last year, only about 1,500 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, according to Seoul.