Caught halfway into a multicountry escape from North Korea, 13 individuals detained in Vietnam reached safety last month due to an unexpected helping hand: the U.S. government.
A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.
American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials, according to the people familiar with the episode. It’s uncommon for American officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.
The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes, according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea. Mintaro Oba, a former official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”
Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate already stalled nuclear negotiations.
[Wall Street Journal]