Human rights activists say that perhaps no group of escapees has ever made it farther from the North only to be dragged back.
Some non-governmental organizations put part of the blame on the South Korean government, saying its officials underestimated the willingness of Laos and North Korea to work together and failed to meet with the group during the 18 days between its detention and the hand-off to the North. South Korea says it was notified by the pastor on the day the group was first detained, but that Laos never granted its diplomats a meeting with the escapees.
Laos, in a statement released by its foreign ministry, said it returned the nine to the North after its investigation found that they were victims of “human trafficking.” But activists, including some who worked with the nine escapees or know the pastor, strongly dispute that claim, and have drawn up their own personal theories to explain Laos’s behavior. They say the handoff could be the result of a diplomatic favor or a bribe.
Laos has been the preferred route of nearly half of the 25,000 defectors who’ve successfully fled impoverished and authoritarian North Korea, and its critical role on that escape route highlights the convoluted path defectors take from one Korea to the other.