Pastor Joo Tells His Story

Demonstrators protest Lao's repatriation of 9 orphans

Reported by Dong-A Ilbo (May 31, 2013):

News outlet Dong-A Ilbo interviewed the pastor who guided the nine North Korean defector orphans during their attempted escape from China to Laos.

We wanted to leave the Lao immigration center because something felt wrong, but the South Korean embassy told us “Stay”

Pastor Joo, who led the nine North Korean defector orphans to Laos, where they were arrested and detained, could not stop crying.  “Some of them had lived with me for three years in China.  This is the fourth deportation for one of the girls.  One time, when I was suffering from extreme exhaustion and receiving fluids intraveneously, they stayed with me all night, caring for me….”

The Dong-A Ilbo interviewed Pastor Joo in Seoul on May 29.  After being deported from Laos on the evening of the 28th, he arrived at Incheon International Airport.  The following summarizes his description of the events.

The South Korean embassy advised Pastor Joo “Tell the authorities the children are North Korean defectors”

On May 10, the group, including Pastor and Mrs. Joo and 9 North Korean defectors, was stopped and questioned by police as soon as they arrived in Udomxai, in northern Laos.  The police asked Pastor Joo to identify who they were, and the Pastor answered that they were a tourist group from South Korea.

The police then told him to call the travel agency.  Pastor Joo called the South Korean embassy and explained what was happening, and then the person in charge at the embassy talked directly with the police.  The person at the embassy advised the Pastor to do as the police told them, since the police seemed to already know who they were.  Thus, they decided to follow the embassy’s advice.  The police were extremely surprised and asked three times whether the children really came from North Korea.  Regarding this matter, the embassy added that, since the defectors were minors, the Pastor should honestly tell the police that they were intending to enter illegally. Otherwise, he would be suspected of human trafficking.

After they were arrested, he constantly phoned and sent text messages to the South Korean embassy. Every time they answered the calls, the embassy repeatedly protested that Udomxai was too far for them to go, and added that he should not be calling them because the calls might be tapped.

After five days, the Udomxai immigration officers demanded to be paid for transporting them to the South Korean embassy.  Pastor Joo paid $1,500 US dollars, but instead of being taken to the embassy they were taken to the immigration center in Vientian, Laos.  They felt that they had been lied to.

Two North Koreans Appear on the Scene

On May 20, two men who spoke Korean visited the immigration center, where they interviewed and photographed each defector.  The children afterward told the Pastor that the men had asked, “Why do you want to move to South Korea?  Recent North Korean defectors who resettle in South Korea are all struggling and decide to go back to North Korea.”  Pastor Joo told the South Korean embassy what the children had told him, but the embassy replied, “Don’t worry.  They are just trying to make sure the children are really determined to leave North Korea.”

On May 22, Pastor Joo was worried and told the embassy that he was thinking of escaping from the immigration center and going to the South Korean embassy or the US embassy located in their neighborhood.  The embassy told him that it would be too risky and advised him not to do it.

Although the interrogation continued after they were transferred to the immigration center in Vientian on May 16, the pastor and his wife and the children were allowed to go out every day.

Drastic Changes after the North Koreans’ Second Visit

On May 24, Friday, the same two men visited the immigration center a second time to get all the children’s signatures.  Following that, the attitude of the immigration personnel suddenly changed.  They completely stopped allowing the group to go out or to meet with others.  At this time, the South Korean embassy told the pastor that the Lao government, who had earlier said they would transfer the children to South Korea, began telling the embassy that they needed more time.  The pastor believes that on about May 23, the Lao government received an official request from the North Korean government to send the defectors back to them.

Pastor Joo said “They kept us on the third floor of the immigration center, and they interviewed us on the second and the third floors. If someone visited and they had to use the meeting room on the floor where we were, they moved us to the first floor.”  Later, he realized that the North Korean embassy had sent the two men back for the signatures so that new passports could be made for the children.

On May 27, the immigration personnel told the children to come out, saying they were going to take them to the South Korean embassy.  Pastor and Mrs. Joo were not allowed to go with them.  After confirming that the car with the children had left the immigration center, the pastor called the South Korean embassy, telling them that the children were on their way.  It was not until then that embassy personnel finally came to the immigration center.

The embassy personnel then told the pastor that they had requested an interview with the group after their arrest but that the Lao government had refused.  The pastor said “The Lao government had allowed him to meet three times with a Lao acquaintance of his!  The behavior of the immigration personnel had remained reasonable until the 23rd.”  Pastor Joo emphasizes that this tragedy is a direct result of the South Korean government’s “peace-at-any-price” attitude.

The pastor also commented, “The South Korean government claims that the North Korean government acted exceptionally quickly on this matter, but I strongly feel that the obvious negligence of the South Korean government is what is unusual.”  He added, “The South Korean government, meanwhile, claims that they did their best and should not be blamed for anything.”

Related Stories
     • 9 Repatriated NK Orphans Face Life or Death
     • LFNKR Statement on the 9 Orphans

What Other News Outlets Are Saying

BBC Online — UN ‘Dismayed’ over North Korea Refugees
The UN says it is dismayed over reports that China and Laos forcibly repatriated nine young North Korean refugees back home on Tuesday. The organisation said it had received “credible information” that the group were arrested in Laos, then returned to North Korea via China.

Asahi News — UN Fears 9 NK Defectors Sent Home by China
GENEVA–The United Nations has “credible information” that China has returned nine young North Korean defectors to their homeland, where they face possible severe punishment or even execution for having fled, it said on May 31.
Wall Street Journal — Laos Returns Refugees to North Korea
SEOUL—Laos handed over a group of North Korean refugees to Pyongyang this week and rejected criticism it had endangered their lives, saying South Korea was informed of the detentions but made no attempt to help, an assertion a South Korean official disputed.