Over the years, this Southeast Asian nation has been a vital safe haven for defectors, with its Communist government quietly helping thousands reach South Korea. But this time Laos reversed course with little explanation, detaining the defectors for traveling without documents, then handing them over to North Korean agents, who whisked them away on a series of commercial flights back to Pyongyang.
The cooperation between Laos and North Korea blindsided aid workers and South Korean officials, who say that the North, under leader Kim Jong Un, is taking new forms of recourse against those who escape its borders.
During Kim’s 18 months in power, the North has cut defections nearly in half, according to South Korean government data. North Korea has tightened security on its own borders and sent agents into China to pose as and expose escapees. But until now, escapees who made it to Southeast Asia had remained relatively free from danger.
The case in Laos has sparked fears that the North, as part of that strategy, is also pressuring Southeast Asian governments to return defectors, though “we still don’t know for sure,” said one South Korean government official, requesting anonymity to discuss details of the case.
Analysts say the North views defections as a double-edged threat: Once out, escapees can testify about the country’s gulags and poverty. They can also send back money and information to family members, planting the seeds for others to defect via a labyrinth of safe houses and small churches operated by aid workers and Christian missionaries.
South Korean officials say they have little clue about whether Laos and North Korea will continue to cooperate in stopping defections, or even why they cooperated in this instance.
Laos, in a statement released by its foreign ministry, said it returned the nine to the North after its investigation found that they were victims of “human trafficking.” But activists, including some who worked with the nine escapees or know the pastor, strongly dispute that claim, and have drawn up their own personal theories to explain Laos’s behavior. They say the handoff could be the result of a diplomatic favor or a bribe.
“There may have been some financial incentive provided” by the North, said Suzanne Scholte, a well-known rights activist who was in touch with the pastor, adding that an investigation is necessary.
Either way, the case has prompted new concern among activists for those who escape the North, who depend on the governments of Southeast Asian countries — typically Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos — to help them seek asylum and resettle in South Korea.