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2013/06/06 10:30

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

South Korea Demands North Korea Ensure Safety of Repatriated Defectors

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The recent deportation of nine North Korean defectors to their home country from Laos via China has emerged as a diplomatic issue among the related countries as well as rekindling fears of human rights abuse by Pyongyang.

Also, controversy persists over who is responsible for the forced repatriation of the nine North Koreans, mostly in their teens and believed to all be orphans.

The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, fled their country in 2011. They hid in China before moving to Laos in hopes of settling in South Korea, but they were rounded up there on May 10 before being deported to China on May 27, and sent home the following day. Laos handed them over to the North despite appeals from South Korea.

South Korea's foreign ministry and its embassy in Laos have come under intense scrutiny for not taking proper action to help the North Koreans seeking asylum in South Korea.

South Korea "strongly" urged North Korea to ensure the safety of nine young North Korean defectors. "The government strongly demands the North Korean authorities ensure the lives and safety of forcibly repatriated North Koreans," Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.

South Korea will raise the issue of the latest deportation at a meeting with a U.N. human rights agency in Geneva this week, Cho said.

The deportation drew international attention as it is believed to be the first case in which Laos has handed over North Korean defectors to North Korean agents.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned on June 3 that North Korea would face international criticism if the repatriated defectors face unfair punishment.

She also said South Korea should not take the case as just a diplomatic issue with Laos, but as a global matter about the human rights problem of North Korean defectors and every possible effort should be put in through the international community, especially refugee organizations, to ensure their safety.

Meanwhile, a group of South Korean civic organizations held rallies in central Seoul on June 4, condemning the recent decision of the Lao government. "The forced deportation is a clear violation of the international law and a grave violation of human rights," the Korea Freedom Federation said in a statement.

The group also called for the international community to focus all of their diplomatic efforts to ensure the safety of the nine.

Laos has become one of the major transit points for North Korean defectors, who flee their homeland through China with the aim of eventually entering South Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Laos, Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, which is presently home to more than 25,000 North Korean defectors.

Nevertheless, critics say that the South Korean Embassy in Laos should be held accountable for their tragic journey back home. According to diplomatic sources, the embassy was only notified of their repatriation by the Laos government after the North Korean Embassy in the Southeast Asian country lobbied hard to send them back to the North.

Considering Pyongyang's recent intensified clampdown on defection, the South Korean government should reinforce protection for North Korean defectors heading to the South to avert such misfortune in the future, they claimed.

Despite the Lao authorities' promise on May 20 to deliver them to the South Korean Embassy, it delayed their delivery before abruptly notifying the embassy that it had deported all of them to China.

According to the activists based in Laos, the group of defectors didn't know each other until they crossed the border with China from North Hamgyong Province to escape hunger and starvation. They ended up in the Chinese city of Dandong, bordering North Korea, for about a year with the support of a Korean missionary couple.

In April, a Korean minister and his wife surnamed Joo volunteered to help them defect to South Korea, the activists said. The group traveled through Yunnan Province and into Laos via car on May 9. But as they drove toward the Lao capital of Vientiane, they were pulled over and questioned by Lao officials.

A North Korean rights activist in Laos who requested anonymity said, "Rumors circulated regarding the defectors in Laos and North Korean officials became active in the case.”

Through diplomatic channels, the South Korean Embassy in Laos requested local officials surrender the defectors into their custody to no avail.

The Joos and the nine defectors were detained, and on May 27 South Korean officials were informed that the defectors would be sent back to China.

This suggests the strong possibility of North Korean authorities playing a direct role in their repatriation. Analysts also said that since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's ascent to power, the socialist country has reinforced its crack down on its residents' defection to other countries.

In fact, the North Korean regime has reportedly exerted all efforts to prevent its people from being swayed by external influences, specifically from South Korea and other countries such as the United States and Japan.

Of late, the North has reinforced its activities for the return of North Korean defectors who had previously fled their country and settled in South Korea. There are several cases of repatriation of North Korean defectors, who fled from South Korea, and held press conferences in Pyongyang last year.

Sources said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has directly taken care of the North Korean defector issue himself, adding more and more North Korean agents are engaged in their secret operation for the arrest of North Korean defectors staying in China.

Besides, North Korea has stepped up its border surveillance with China since Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011 in another round of father-to-son hereditary power transfer, branding defectors as "traitors."

   As a result, the number of North Korean defectors that entered the South fell from 2,929 in 2009 to 1,509 last year. When repatriated, defectors face prison terms, torture and even execution.

A North Korea human rights advocacy group source said that there are some 150 North Korean agents under the North's State Security Department operating secretly in the Chinese cities of Yanji, Dandong and Shenyang.

The agents are also known to have even traveled to Southeast Asian countries to arrest the defectors, a strong indication that they played vital role in deporting the nine young defectors to North Korea from Laos.

Diplomatic sources in Seoul say at least one North Korean agent was on board the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang with the defectors, indicating that the North Korean government was involved in the deportation.

In the past, the North Korean defectors were simply expelled to China or South Korean embassies in the Southeast Asian countries, without being turned to North Korean authorities.

Moreover, North Korea has intensified its border control with China. Another source said that North Korea has newly installed checkpoints along the border villages of North Hamgyong Province in a bid to control North Korean residents' movements to the neighboring country.

The latest repatriations proved there are big holes in Seoul's intelligence and diplomatic readiness and capabilities. While South Korean agents and diplomats were tepid and easygoing, their North Korean counterparts were swift, systematic and active, North Korea watchers said.

In the wake of the forced repatriation of nine North Korean youngsters, civic activists for North Koreans' human rights said it wasn't the first time that the South Korean Embassy in Laos had been incompetent in dealing with defectors.

Ha Tae-keung, a ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker and a former civic activist, convened a press conference with some other defectors and said that, so far, defectors from North Korea have been mostly neglected by the South Korean Embassy in Laos.

Citing 12 similar cases to prove their claims, Ha said, "The recent case of the North Korean orphans forcibly dragged from Laos was prompted by the (South) Korean Embassy's negligence." For instance, they said in July 2006, nine North Korean defectors were arrested by Lao security guards in Oudomxai, a region that shares part of its border with China.

"So far, North Korea hasn't shown any interest in the defectors fleeing through Southeast Asia," Ha said. "But this time, the quick deportation must have been ordered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to try to prevent further defection through the region. "This kind of crackdown on defectors could be expanded to other routes," Ha said.

The unprecedented decision by Lao authorities reflects the close relationship between the Southeast Asian nation and North Korea. Both are socialist countries; the North initially established diplomatic ties with Laos in 1974. Since then, Pyongyang has maintained friendly relations with Vientiane, which allegedly includes exporting weapons to it.

As recently as June 2008, the two countries signed a mutual legal treaty on civil and criminal cases and a memorandum of understanding on social security, further cementing their cooperation.

Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un became leader of the reclusive state, exchanges of high-level personnel have also been common. In August 2012, North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly President Kim Yong-nam visited Laos. Earlier in May, North Korean People's Army Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho paid a visit too.

It was also confirmed that Soukanh Mahalath, the mayor of Vientiane, visited North Korea last week. Besides this, the move by Laos is in line with the young North Korean leader's recent policies aimed at further tightening control of citizens attempting to defect.

A foreign ministry official said that the North Korean mission in Laos has twice as many officials compared to South Korea's which is usually staffed by five officials. Observers say the decision by Laos was a result of the lack of South Korean diplomatic staff.

Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva confirmed that the defectors were forcibly deported, and called for the North to guarantee their safety during a press briefing. It's the first time that a deportation of defectors has been confirmed by the U.N.

"I have very real concerns about the penalties and treatment they could face if returned to North Korea and all the concerned authorities have an urgent responsibility to ensure their protection," Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, said in a statement.

Leaders of the United States and China will likely discuss the issue of North Korean defectors during talks between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, said a Seoul source well-versed in diplomatic issues.

During their planned summit in California on June 7, Obama is expected to send messages to Xi to refrain from forcibly deporting North Korean defectors back to their totalitarian homeland and to deal with them in a humanitarian way, the source said.

Speaking of recent moves by the U.S. government and officials to defend the rights of North Korean defectors, the source said Washington will continue to call on Beijing for support and to address the issue in accordance with international norms.

Last week, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki expressed concerns about the recent repatriation case during a press briefing.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also sent a letter to China's President Xi Jinping expressing his concern over recent reports of the forced repatriation of nine North Korean defectors.

"The U.S. and China must work together to address the serious challenges that North Korea poses to the world community. I strongly encourage the Government of the People's Republic of China to work closely with the U.S. and others to find an alternative to forced repatriations," Royce wrote in the letter.