Over the years, Laos has been a vital safe haven for North Korean defectors, with its Communist government quietly helping thousands reach South Korea. But Laos reversed course with little explanation, recently detaining 9 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 North Korea, 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.
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.
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.