From N. Korea to a Laos Jail Cell

Two North Korean girls, 13 and 17, and a boy, 12, were caught in Laos, where officials want $3,000
Two North Korean girls, 13 and 17, and a boy, 12, were caught in Laos, where officials want $3,000 "to grease the wheels" of release, activists said. (Courtesy Of Life Funds For North Korean Refugees)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The three youthful North Korean refugees survived a journey of more than 2,000 miles across China, only to land in jail in the Southeast Asian country of Laos. Now, like thousands of their fellow citizens caught midway in their flight, they face the danger of being forcibly returned to their totalitarian homeland, according to humanitarian groups working to free the three.

Hyok Choi, a 12-year-old boy, his sister, Hyang Choi, 13, and another girl, Hyang-Mi Choi, 17, will be handed over to North Korean diplomats unless Laotian officials are paid $3,000 "to grease the wheels of their release," according to the Tokyo-based group Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.

Group members who have visited the young refugees in a Laotian jail have brought out letters in which the three say they would rather die than go home to face possible imprisonment or execution.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China, where they hide along the Yalu River, living in wretched conditions and in constant fear of being caught or coerced into a flourishing sex trade.

Increasing numbers are making the arduous overland trip south across China. They hope to reach Southeast Asian countries and go on to South Korea or the United States, but along the way they frequently encounter officials seeking bribes to facilitate their movement.

The constitution of South Korea affirms that North Koreans have the right to resettle there, and the country has so far taken in close to 9,000 of them. In 2004, the United States pledged to accept refugees as well, under the North Korean Human Rights Act.

Lisa Colacurcio, a volunteer with the Life Funds group, said the organization is launching a public appeal and working through diplomatic channels to free the three youngsters without payment of the $3,000 and to find sponsors for them in the United States or South Korea.

She accused the South Korean and U.S. governments of ignoring the dire situation of refugees. Those governments aver they are doing their best to help. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told Congress in November that the United States "is extremely concerned about the plight of North Korean refugees."

Members of Colacurcio's group visited the three prisoners in a Laotian jail this month and brought out letters reflecting desperation after three months of incarceration. "If you don't help us, we will kill ourselves because we don't want to go to North Korea," Choi Hyok wrote on April 6.

Choi Hyang-mi told her uncle that the three had been interrogated and threatened by North Korean officials and urged him to send them the money being demanded in exchange for their release. "Don't count the number and please save human life! They can take our dead bodies to North Korea, but not us alive. I mean it!" she wrote.

Choi Hyang-mi wrote that her letter was "the last chance of a drowning person who will catch at a straw," according to a rough translation into English from the original Korean.

Hiroshi Kato, executive director of the Life Funds group in Tokyo and one of those who visited the jail in Laos, said the children had survived not only starvation in their homeland but the deaths of parents and relatives and encounters with human traffickers in China before being caught trying to cross the border into Laos.

Hyang-mi saw her mother sold to human traffickers in China and had been unable to locate her younger brother, according to Kato.

"Their outlook if they are forcibly returned to Pyongyang is bleak," he warned. The three told Kato and another visitor from the group, Kim Sang Hun, that they wanted to go to the United States.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company