North Korean Orphans and Refugees in Laos: Symptom of a Larger Problem

By | June 19, 2013 | No Comments

The North Korean border is getting harder to cross, and now that problem is spreading into Southeast Asia | Image: Sino-NK

It looks nice, but the North Korean border is getting harder to cross these days, and now that problem is spreading into Southeast Asia | Image: Sino-NK

The problem of Laos aiding, or at least enabling, North Korean imperatives with respect to the refugee issue has not emerged out of nowhere. As Nicolas Levi mentioned last year, the DPRK has been making a continuous and notable effort to secure support in Southeast Asia not just for food aid, but also on the public security front. Nick Miller investigates where we are today. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief 

North Korean Orphans and Refugees in Laos: Symptom of a Larger Problem

by Nick Miller

A 15 Year Trend in Reverse: North Korean Defector Numbers Decreasing | The recent case of nine young North Korean defectors repatriated to North Korea from Laos has inspired a tidal wave of commentary from the human rights community, news agencies, and policy analysts. Mostly, it serves as a salutary warning about the far-reaching hand of the North Korean Department of State Security (국가안전보위부), an agency that has become even more powerful than it ever was as Kim Jong-un moves to secure his rule by cracking down on defection.

Since 2012, the North Korean government has been handing down stricter punishments to those caught trying to leave. Statistics indicate that these moves have met with some success. In 2011, 2,706 North Koreans entered South Korea, whereas during the first two quarters of 2012 only 751 followed suit; this roughly 42% decrease is an indication that the 15-year trend of North Korean defections to the South has been reversed.

Defectors report that government officials have initiated stricter policies. According to Open Radio for North Korea, an additional 20,000 soldiers were sent to patrol the Chinese-North Korean border at one stage, and harsher internal measures have been put in place to deter bribery of soldiers manning the border. Little leniency is granted to North Koreans visiting China for money or medicine, and punishment is enacted upon family members as well. Defectors hoping to get to South Korea are viewed by the state as traitors and usually sentenced to five years of hard labor. If defectors are found to be working with South Korean or American missionary agents they are punished for the crime of aiding “anti-state activity,” which carries a nominal sentence of life in prison or death.

The nine repatriated young defectors, in a Christmas photo taken last year | Image: North Korea Freedom Coalition

The nine repatriated young defectors, in a Christmas photo taken last year | Image: North Korea Freedom Coalition

The Laotian Question: the Repatriation of Nine Young Defectors | On May 10, 2013 the Laos government stated that nine North Korean defectors had been caught with two South Koreans in Oudomxay Province, which borders China. The South Koreans were accused of engaging in human trafficking, and forced to hand over the defectors to the DPRK Embassy in Vientiane in accordance with Prime Minister’s Decree No. 136 on Immigration and Foreigner Control. Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN Office of Human Rights, stated that the defectors were then returned to North Korea via China.

The young defectors had been under the direction of South Korean missionaries. KCNA later stated that the South Korean government abducted them, and offered pity to them as victims of brainwashing. The “abduction” of the defectors by South Korean missionaries was characterized by North Korea as an unruly ploy by South Korea and the United States to point up the North as a human rights violator and thus propagate anti-DPRK sentiment throughout the international community.

However, Kim Sung-min of Free North Korea Radio stated that North Korea had sent five agents into Laos to met with the refugees at the detention center from May 20-27, threatening them with retaliation but also promising educational opportunities if they returned to North Korea. The interviews were done individually, and Kim said he believes the agents succeeded. This tactic forced the defectors to one-up each other in their displays of loyalty to the regime in order to avoid the possibility of labor camp sentences back home.

Chosun Ilbo also reported that Kim Jong-un had himself ordered the return of the defectors, noting that the high-profile repatriations were only possible because the agents had diplomatic passports and Kim’s personal blessing. An unnamed North Korean agent at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane told a South Korean reporter that the repatriated teenagers were back in the fatherland and living happily in the “arms of the General.”

The Bilateral Connection: Kim Jong-un’s Road through Laos | In the past, taking defectors through Southeast Asia was part of a common route to safety in South Korea, but Laos’ decision to side with North Korea now may stem from their long bilateral relationship. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1974, while within the last six years there has been a marked increase in Laos-DPRK diplomatic activity. The following lists a few notable bilateral events and visits:

– In June 2008 Laos and North Korea signed a mutual legal treaty on the handling of civil and criminal issues in an effort to increase cooperation on security issues;
– Laos hosted delegation visits from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho in May of 2012 before he was purged in the summer of the same year;
– In August 2012 Kim Yong-nam, President of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), visited Laos;
– On March 15, 2013 Laos and North Korea signed software development agreements to foster cooperation in the development of new technology and software; and
– In May of 2013 Mayor of Vientiane Soukanh Mahalath also visited North Korea.

This increased cooperation may stem from North Korea’s simple desire to work with Laos to cut off the flow of defectors; however, it is likely that North Korea offered incentives to the Laotian government in exchange for its cooperation. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, saw Kim Jong-un’s engagement with Laos as a sign that North Korea is seeking to restore its former relationships as part of a broader charm offensive in Southeast Asia.

Impetus to Legislate: South Korea’s Role | Within South Korean politics, Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung remarked that the nine young defectors would have been protected from deportation if South Korea had passed the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHR Act; 북한인권법) and that South Korea should take notice of the incident and pass it immediately. Ha saw the Laos incident as highlighting the problem of communication between human rights NGOs and ROK embassies. The NKHR Act would create a North Korean Foundation that would foster better communication between the South Korean government and NGOs, he noted. It would also aid defectors in various ways; for example, by helping pay fines incurred in the process of defection, thus helping prevent their repatriation.

This is the first time Laos has repatriated North Korean defectors, and while it is too early to say whether the trend is going to continue, what happened indicates again that stemming the flow of defectors is a top priority for Kim Jong-un. However, South Korea has responded: on June 13 it came to the attention of the media that there were still an estimated 20 defectors in Laos, formerly with the government but now  under the protection of the ROK Embassy in Vientiane. Saenuri Party Leader Kim Jae-won urged Laos to cooperate in assisting the defectors reach South Korea, which they ultimately did.

An Unusual Source of Sympathy: Chinese Views | The difficulties of defectors seeking asylum and safety will only increase if Kim Jong-un is successful in persuading more Southeast Asian nations to repatriate known defectors within their territories. If a country such as Thailand were to doubt the status quo, South Korean missionaries and NGOs would  have to find new routes to bring defectors over to South Korea. As for China, local netizens have lamented their government’s role. They too think North Korea needs to reexamine why people seek to defect. One user stated that an “executioner state like Chosun is not normal” and that North Korea is a country under dictatorial rule.

Nevertheless, China will likely continue supporting North Korea to stem the flow of refugees. While Chinese citizens may decry their own government actions, the Chinese government believes it has to play the long game in order to keep the region stable, all the while finding ways to rein in North Korea’s more bellicose actions so as to stop them aggravating an already tense situation on the Korean peninsula.

Further Readings

Brian Gleason, “Press Conference as Discursive Battleground: Pyongyang’s Evolving ‘Double Defector’ Propaganda,” Sino-NK, June 9, 2013.

Brian Gleason, “Overwhelmed by Guilt: Pyongyang’s Evolving ‘Double Defector’ Propaganda,” Sino-NK, May 25, 2013.

Brian Gleason, “Double Defectors: Signifiers of Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift,” Sino-NK, December 6, 2012.

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