SEOUL — Laos is coming under increasing international criticism for its unusual decision to turn over to the North Korean government nine defectors, most of them homeless teenagers.
The young North Koreans were arrested by Laotian authorities May 10 just across the border from southwestern China, in Laos’ Oudomxay province. Also arrested were two South Korean missionaries who had been helping the North Koreans in an attempt to reach South Korea.
“We have received credible information that the nine young North Korean defectors were subsequently returned to [North Korea] via China,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in a statement. “We are dismayed … especially given the vulnerability of this group, all of whom are reported to be orphans.”
In China, there are tens of thousands of so-called kotchebis or “wandering swallows,” children who flee their homes due to the extreme food shortages. South Korea gives asylum to all North Koreans, but because of its diplomatic relations with China, will not accept them at embassies or consulates in China. As a result, they often cross into Laos, Vietnam or Mongolia.
South Korean officials said they were in talks with the Laotian government about the defectors when suddenly they received word Monday that they had been turned over to the North Korean Embassy in Vientiane. The next day they were put on a plane for Pyongyang.
The news was shocking to a South Korean human-rights group that has been helping the defectors, as Laos has been considered a safe route for years.
“I’ve been working for the cause for 14 years, but this is the first time I saw defectors being banished from Laos by its government,” said Pastor Chun Ki-won, director of Durihana, a Christian missionary organization that helps North Korean defectors.
Sohn Kwang-joo, chief editor of the North Korea news outlet Daily NK, said the incident shows that Kim Jong Un, the new young leader of North Korea, is cracking down on defectors.
“Since the start of Kim Jong Un’s regime, restrictions over defectors have strengthened at the North Korea-China border region. There are more surveillance cameras installed along the Tumen and Yalu rivers.
“The surprising expulsion of the defectors shows Pyongyang’s determination to get a hold on the defector issue.’’
In Seoul, South Korea’s official Yonhap news service reported Sunday that the foreign ministry would convene an emergency meeting in mid-June to better coordinate efforts on behalf of defectors.
“Officials this time would reexamine an overall cooperative mechanism with each other and with Asian countries to prevent such a case from happening again,” a ministry official was quoted as saying by the news service.
North Koreans who are repatriated after failed defection attempts face sentences in labor camps and sometimes execution, especially if they are found to be working with Christian groups.
The South Korean couple helping the defectors, identified only by their family name, Chu, have been charged with human trafficking by Laos.
There was some question about the age of the defectors. Trying to bolster the trafficking charges, Laos released a statement over the weekend saying they were between 14 and 18, and as minors, incapable of making their own decisions. Refugee advocates gave the ages as 15 to 23.
South Korean activists over the weekend released video footage of the defectors shortly after crossing the border. Five young men and two young women, disguised to look like a student tour group, posed in matching lime-green T-shirts making victory signs with their hands. Thirty minutes later they were arrested.
Barbara Demick of the Beijing bureau contributed to this story.