SK President’s Policies Ignore Refugees

Nothing New from Lee Myung-bak

South Korea’s pro-North stance, including its Sunshine Policy and its Engagement Policy implemented by the regimes of Kim Dae-jung and Roh-Moo-hyun, has caused untold suffering for the North Korean people and North Korean defectors due to rampant human rights violations. 

Groups dedicated to North Korean human rights were optimistic about the new regime led by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, since his policies toward North Korea appeared to differ markedly from those of the two previous regimes.

It has been disappointing, however, to find that the policy of Lee’s administration toward North Korean defectors is substantially the same as the previous policies. It could even be said that nothing has changed. The policy states that the scope of the South Korean government’s support for North Korean defectors rules out any political or diplomatic conflict with countries where the North Korean defectors may be staying.

To give the new regime due credit, we should comment that the policy may indicate the administration’s intention to be a “normal” country with regard to human rights, a view that constitutes the basic philosophy of democracy.

That said, little improvement has been seen in the aid extended to North Korean defectors in Laos.

Smuggling North Korean defectors into Thailand from Laos

Until early 2008, North Korean defectors who managed to reach the South Korean Embassy in Laos were smuggled, with the silent aid of the Embassy, into Thailand via an unofficial route. The South Korean government had chosen the ridiculous expedient of smuggling North Korean defectors into the neighboring country, due to fears that accepting them openly might cause a diplomatic row.

NGOs involved in helping North Korean refugees had been protesting this involvement by the South Korean government in illegal smuggling, while they neglected their rightful duties.

South Korean embassy neglects its duties

Back in April 2007, two teenage girls and a boy, escapees from North Korea, were detained in a Laotian jail. During their confinement, no one from the South Korean Embassy in Laos visited the three children. Not once. This encouraged North Korean Embassy staff members to visit the jail seeking the return of the three to North Korea.

In another case, which took place in December 2007, two female North Korean defectors ran into the South Korean Embassy in Laos. Armed Lao policemen entered the embassy to arrest the two women. South Korean Embassy staff made no protest. Instead, the South Korean Ambassador stated it was not surprising for Lao policemen to arrest unidentified persons.

Running into foreign embassies opened up a gate

In 2008, South Korean NGOs helped North Korean defectors in Laos flee into the Swedish embassy as well as others. Surprisingly, those North Korean defectors reached South Korea in ONE WEEK! That confirmed that defectors could safely and quickly reach their destinations via the Laos-South Korea route. The incident of the North Korean defectors dashing into foreign embassies in Laos opened up an entirely new gate. Finally, in October 2008, the South Korean Embassy in Laos began transferring North Korean defectors directly to South Korea.

The South Korean Embassy, however, still offers no help to defectors who cannot reach the embassy. Unless they make it to the embassy by themselves, officials there will do nothing. This attitude may be caused by a desire to avoid political or diplomatic conflicts with the Lao government.

Will be repatriated unless they pay 500 dollars

In December 2008, three North Korean defectors, one woman and a couple, were arrested in Boten (China/Laos border). The woman died of ruptured intestines, and the couple attempted to kill themselves. Here is how that happened.

The Lao police authorities told the three defectors that they would be repatriated unless each paid a 500-dollar fine, a demand that plunged them into desperation. A violent argument resulted in the death of the female defector.

The couple, after witnessing the scene, attempted suicide by swallowing a number of metal objects. Obviously, the couple preferred death to facing the fate that would await them after repatriation. What eventually happened to the couple is still unclear.

The South Korean Embassy neglected to investigate the death of the woman, even leaving it to the Lao authorities to bury her. The Embassy has not bothered to locate her grave.

Ignoring a desperate call for help from the border

On February 1, 2009, three female North Korean defectors were arrested and jailed in Luang Namtha, a town on the Laos-China border. The three called the consul in charge of residents abroad at the South Korean Embassy in Laos, begging for help, but got no response. As a result, the Lao authorities decided to forcibly return the three to China on February 15.

The three female defectors gave their rings and necklaces to the Lao authorities, repeatedly begging them “Please don’t hand us over to the Chinese police… please.” An immigration control officer who accompanied the three told them “Head toward China,” then left them once they had reached the border. This gave them the chance to hide in the mountains. Later, they managed to reach an acquaintance who helped them contact a South Korean NGO.

On February 27, with the aid of this reliable NGO, the three female defectors reached the South Korean Embassy in Laos where they finally received protection.

19 NK defectors currently jailed – Their fines total 7,000 dollars

The flow of North Korean defectors into Laos continues. In fact, 19 North Korean defectors are currently jailed in Udom Xai. Total fines demanded for all of them amount to 7,000 dollars. The South Korean Embassy has decided not to get involved in these cases. They are not interested in helping the 19 North Koreans escape this situation.

These 19 defectors desperately need help, but the South Korean government is not taking responsibility. LFNKR is willing to do the job, but we need your assistance. If you will make even a small donation, we, together, may be able to do the right thing for these trapped refugees.

Report by Senri Aizu
(LFNKR director)