Protesters from a human rights group hold signs during a rally against Laos' recent repatriation of nine North Korean defectors, in front of the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, on May 31, 2013. (KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS)

Early last month, nine young North Korean defectors, guided by a South Korean pastor and his wife, thought they were on the last leg of a long escape.

Already, they’d traveled some 2,500 miles, sneaking from the northern tip of North Korea into China, then — in the most dangerous part of their journey — across much of eastern China. Next, they’d headed into Laos.

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.

Circular path to safety

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.

The recent case of the nine young defectors made days of headlines in Seoul, not just because of the grim outcome but also because of the defectors’ back stories. Nearly all were orphans, between 15 and 23 years old, who’d crossed into China, starving and sickly. Some had parasite infections and had been eating out of trash cans in the North, Scholte said.

The escapees were eventually welcomed to a safe house hidden amid the apartment complexes of the neon-lit northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, where they could rest and recover. The safe house was operated by a pastor and his wife, according to Scholte and another rights activists who knows the pastor, who requested anonymity to describe what he calls a sensitive case. The couple had helped previous groups escape successfully, relying on money from private donations.

Rights activists say that perhaps no group of escapees has ever made it farther from the North only to be dragged back. Some non-governmental organizations put part of the blame on the South Korean government, saying its officials underestimated the willingness of Laos and North Korea to work together and failed to meet with the group during the 18 days between its detention and the hand-off to the North.

South Korea says it was notified by the pastor on the day the group was first detained, but that Laos never granted its diplomats a meeting with the escapees.

A winding path to freedom

Laos is an oblong landlocked country of just 6 million people, bordering China on its north and wedged along the sides by Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. Its capital city has a small community of Koreans, nearly all from the South, and a half-dozen Korean restaurants. Both Koreas have embassies here, and the North’s has a glass display case by its entrance showing photos of Kim Jong Un during various public outings around Pyongyang, including a visit with schoolkids.

Laos has been the preferred route of nearly half of the 25,000 who’ve successfully fled the impoverished and authoritarian North, and its critical role on that escape route highlights the convoluted path defectors take from one Korea to the other.

The Korean peninsula is divided by a nearly impassable demilitarized zone, a border strung with barbed wire, peppered with mines and patrolled on both sides by militaries. As a result, North Koreans who want to reach the South, where they are granted citizenship, must take the long route.

They start by crossing one of two shallow rivers — the Yalu or Tumen — into China, either swimming across or walking over ice during winter. They try to avoid the watchtowers and North Korean guards who have occasional shoot-to-kill orders.

In China, they are far from safe. Beijing views North Koreans as “economic migrants,” not valid asylum seekers, and repatriates them to the North, where they are deemed traitors and subject to re-education camps, prison, torture, and sometimes execution. The Chinese policy, the United Nations says, violates an international convention against returning refugees to a country in which their freedom or lives will be threatened.

If they make it to Southeast Asia, they have roughly a half-dozen options. Many defectors transit through Laos or Burma and head to Thailand, the nation most welcoming to defectors. (Its fines for illegal entry are minimal, and it allows defectors to meet with United Nations officials.) Others pass through Vietnam in order to make it to Cambodia, which the UN describes as a “model” for protecting refugee rights.

Still others try their luck by heading to South Korean embassies in Vietnam and Laos, countries on the Chinese border. But in those countries, according to accounts from defectors, aid workers and missionaries, defectors often encounter fines, shakedowns, corruption, and plenty of waiting before getting getting handed over to the South Koreans. Despite those aggravations, when a defector makes it to Laos, it’s likely the most comfortable place he’s ever been.

“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.