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.
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.
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.
Nearly all the defectors 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. continued …