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South Korea’s Challenge: Protecting North Korean Refugees Abroad

August 26, 2013

Read in Korean

The following article appeared on pages 18-21 of the July 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of John Cha.

NKHR activists protest in front of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Yonhap

Public demand is growing for the Seoul government to re-examine its policies toward North Korean refugees abroad. This follows an incident on May 10 involving the repatriation of nine young North Korean orphans from Laos, otherwise known as the “Laos 9 incident.” Human rights activists charge that these young orphans (aged 14 to 22) were repatriated to North Korea because of the South Korean government’s failure to protect them. The nine youths had been anxiously waiting in the Laotian detention center for their departure for Seoul when North Korean agents took them to Pyongyang via China in violation of international rules and conventions.

Notwithstanding the deplorable conduct on the part of the North Korean agents, human rights advocates have criticized the South Korean Embassy in Laos and its lackadaisical approach in handling this and other North Korean refugee cases. These advocates charge that the embassy in Laos had known that the youths had been detained by Laotian authorities for illegal border crossing, and yet it failed to interview them during the 15-day window available to them at the time. Accordingly, activists say, the South Korean Embassy must share responsibility for the youths’ forced repatriation because it failed to protect them from the North Korean agents.

For many years, the Laos-Thailand route has been a chosen pathway for North Korean refugees seeking final refuge in South Korea. Laotian authorities usually had looked the other way when it came to North Korean refugees in transit, which explains the complacency on the part of the South Korean Embassy in Vientiane (the capital and largest city in Laos). Nevertheless, when the South Korean Embassy became aware of the trouble the nine were facing, activists say they should have acted in a swift manner rather than resorting to passive, “quiet diplomacy.”

Laos-Thailand Only Remaining Route for Refugees

At present, most North Korean refugees escape to South Korea by using a route that runs from China, through Laos, and into Thailand. The old routes running to Mongolia, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma) have been cut off, and now more than 90% of North Korean refugees enter South Korea via this Laos-Thailand route, a difficult journey of thousands of miles. The long journey typically begins with the crossing of the Tumen River (두만강) into China, a life-and-death experience in itself. Once in China, refugees travel by foot or bus southwards and must avoid being caught by the Chinese police, who have orders to hand them over to the North Korean authorities. A small number of refugees have reportedly crossed through the so-called “Golden Triangle” – the region where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge and where security is reportedly more lax – but the majority still use the Laos-Thailand route.

Source: (accessed August 22, 2013)

Before making it to Thailand refugees also have to cross the Mekong River, which is on the border between Laos and Thailand. Once they reach Thailand, refugees approach locals or bribe Thai border guards to take them to a police station. Refugees who make it to Thailand are generally safe because the Thai government does not forcibly repatriate them back to North Korea. Currently, 10 to 15 refugees reach Thailand every week.

Poor NGO-Government Cooperation Hinders Rescue Efforts

However, human rights activists charge that the South Korean government’s policies concerning North Korean refugees fail to ensure their safety until they reach Thailand. They argue that the nine youths were in jeopardy in Laos, but the South Korean government failed to rescue them from North Korean agents, who were there to take them to Pyongyang.

Activists have also expressed their disappointment in the apparent lack of cooperation between local non-government organizations (NGOs) and the South Korean government. They call for improved coordination between the South Korean embassies and the civic organizations that help North Korean refugees. “The solution is in a systematic, joint effort between government officials and NGO field personnel,” says a veteran activist. “Together, they can devise practical solutions if they openly discuss all the details at regularly scheduled meetings. Close cooperation is important in analyzing the information at times when North Korea is involved.” Local NGO employees say that South Korean Embassy staff regarded the activists as a hindrance rather than a solution to the problem and treated them with disdain.

Along with this, activists have called for a fundamental change in how the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy staff view refugees. Up to now, South Korean diplomats have viewed North Korean defectors as absolute foreigners, not potential South Korean citizens. South Korean consulate officers are known to have mistreated North Korean refugees who have requested help. In an infamous case last year, a staff member at a South Korean Embassy allegedly swore at a North Korean refugee who was incarcerated in an immigration detention center in Southeast Asia.

Securing Refugee Escape Routes Crucial

Perhaps most worrying is that the crucial Laotian route may no longer be available to refugees following the Laos 9 incident. NGO workers in Laos say that they had observed some unusual behavior by the Laos authorities before the nine refugees were forcibly repatriated. For example, Vientiane mayor and Secretariat of the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party Sukan Maharat spent five days in Pyongyang in May. “Laos and North Korea have been busy building diplomatic relations,” says an activist familiar with Laotian politics. “It is possible that they discussed the transfer of the refugees when the mayor visited Pyongyang. If North Korea makes a strong request to the Laotian government, the Laos route could disappear.” The activist also said that Kim Jong Un has issued an order to all North Korean diplomatic offices abroad to block refugee escape routes to South Korea.

The Laotian government maintains that its laws give it the right “to return all illegal border crossers, regardless of nationality, back to their countries of origin in accordance with the agreements with respective governments.” Activists say that this is little more than empty rhetoric and that the Laotian government will most likely soften its policy toward South Korea-bound North Korean refugees. This is mainly because of Laos’s commerce with South Korea and its reliance on some 10 million dollars worth of South Korean aid a year. Activists say that this puts South Korea in a good position to persuade the Laotian government to change its policy.

A protester condemns the passive reaction of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs toward the Laos 9 Incident - Yonhap

Activists also argue that South Korean Embassy and consulate offices in China should continue to provide asylum to refugees rather than succumbing to Chinese pressure not to do so. Japan has already signed an agreement with China stating that its embassy and consulate offices will not provide asylum for North Korean refugees. The South Korean government has also shied away from sparking diplomatic conflict with China and has been passive towards the North Korean refugee issue under the pretext of “respecting domestic Chinese law.” A source from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs laments that, “The [South Korean] government is trying to bring refugees into South Korea as fast as possible, but the Chinese government deems the refugees as illegal border crossers and it is not showing any sign of changing its position.”

“The biggest mistake that the former Lee Myung Bak (이명박) administration made was to stop allowing refugees to enter the embassy,” says Yoon Yeo Sang (윤여상), director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (북한인권정보센터). “That nullified all existing rescue operation plans. The new Park Geun Hye (박근혜) administration must reconstruct a new way to provide a haven for refugees.” Specifically, Yoon says that the South Korean government should establish a task force geared toward protecting refugees abroad and that the embassies of the US, Japan, and other countries in China should open their facilities immediately to accommodate asylum seekers.

Given the sticky situation regarding diplomatic relations with China, some argue that NGOs should be the first point of contact for refugees instead of a government agency. They argue that refugees would then be provided with assistance without causing tension between South Korea and China. “It is a bit premature to say, but an unofficial agreement is a possibility if we pursue a dialogue with China on this point,” says Je Sung Ho (제성호), a law professor at Joong Ang University. “This effort would take a long time, and it is only possible through prolonged government interest in the issue.”

Challenges Facing South Korea’s North Korean Refugee Policy

In the wake of the Laos 9 incident, the Park Geun Hye administration has made moves to expand its role in assisting North Korean refugees abroad. In the past, South Korean government agencies became involved with refugees only after their successful entrance into an embassy compound. The Park government is now shifting its policy to assist refugees before they make it to the embassy door, and even assist those who have already been arrested.

The South Korean Embassy in Laos has begun examining the possibility of adding extra members to its staff of only five after it concluded that the lack of manpower contributed to the embassy’s lax reaction to the Laos 9 incident. In connection with this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has requested that the National Assembly increase the budget to hire more employees focused exclusively on North Korean refugee matters. The ministry is further planning to initiate high-level exchanges with various Southeast Asian countries and establish a means to respond appropriately to North Korean refugee issues in those countries. Yoon Byung Se (윤병세), the minister of foreign affairs, held a meeting in Singapore with high level diplomats on June 15, which was followed by a working level meeting of all the operational staff assigned to the region on June 21. Along with plans to revise internal operational manuals for dealing with North Korean refugees, the ministry has said it will urge other countries to observe international conventions and rules associated with refugees and asylum seekers.

Many observers believe that the Laos 9 incident will have a significant positive impact on the Park Geun Hye government’s policies toward North Korean refugees. Nonetheless, the Seoul government faces difficult tasks ahead. These include how the Park government will deal with Pyongyang’s reaction to more aggressive South Korean policies toward North Korean refugees and what measures the government can adopt to increase its already limited options for protecting refugees abroad.

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