“All it takes in Laos is money,” says Kim Sung-eun, a pastor who helps defectors through China and into Southeast Asia. By paying off officials, “you get whatever outcome you want.”
Failing to fly under the radar
Those who assist defectors in Laos say it’s still difficult to determine what went wrong in May. But the group’s unusually large size likely turned it into a target.
According to Scholte and the other rights activist, the pastor earlier this year had been followed for several days by Chinese police, and he worried authorities would soon find his safe house — and the nine who were staying there. Some of those nine had been at the safe house for two years. The rights activists asked that the pastor’s name not be used, due to worries that he might face punishment in China, where he lives.
The pastor had led groups through Laos before, and he typically kept his escape groups small, with four people or fewer, so as not to draw attention. But in this case, according to Scholte and the rights activist, he made an exception because he wanted to get the defectors out of China before the police caught on. All nine left together.
“Nine in a group is too many,” said the rights activist, who corresponded with the pastor during the escape.
The group’s goal was to make it through Laos undetected until arriving at the South Korean embassy in Vientiane. For several days, the escapees traveled across Laos by bus, disguised as a school group, wearing backpacks and matching T-shirts, according to video and photos released after the group’s detention.
But Lao police stopped them halfway through the country, according information from the Lao foreign ministry released weeks later.
Their last days in Laos, from May 16 until May 27, were spent at a three-story immigration office in this capital city, a five-minute walk from a popular shopping market. Few details have emerged about their stay, but several South Korean media reports said North Korean agents paid visits to the center — the first on May 20.
Their detention coincided with the latest in a series of high-level meetings between North Korea and Laos. On May 23, a group of Lao People’s Revolutionary Party members visited Pyongyang, holding what the North described as “friendly” talks with Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state. Analysts say the North may have raised the issue of the defectors at that meeting.
After the defectors returned to Pyongyang, the North’s description of events matched that of the Laos government. According to the North’s state-run media, a group of South Korean “flesh traffic dealers” had been attempting to “tempt and abduct” the youngsters from their homeland. Separately, in a brief phone conversation, a Lao foreign ministry official said the North Koreans were “too young” to qualify as asylum seekers. (Laos has previously helped teen escapees.)
South Korean officials say they’re still baffled by what happened. “Laos continued to tell our embassy, ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ ” one senior government official said.
The nine defectors clearly wanted to flee North Korea for good, said a human rights activist who visited them earlier this year at their safe house in Dandong. They watched South Korean movies on iPads and talked about visiting landmarks in Seoul — Gwanghwamun, a public square, and Seoul Tower. A few also told the activist stories about their lives in North Korea, and how they’d been beaten by authorities for various petty crimes.
“The [escapees] had pretty harsh opinion about North Korean society,” said the activist, Ahn Cheol-min, “because they knew the darkest parts.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.