A Special Report by ICC
8/1/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The forcible repatriation of nine North Korean refugees, captured in Laos while fleeing to South Korea, has led to a blame game between the two nations, while the refugees face the possibility of torture and even death.
Around May 10, 2013, nine North Koreans, aged between 15 to 23, arrived in Laos with plans to go to South Korea, however they were caught and detained by authorities in Laos. Subsequently, they were deported to China and quickly repatriated to North Korea.
Normally, escapees caught inside Laos are moved to a third country, often Thailand, to be sent to Seoul under an unofficial agreement between Laos and South Korea, according to a former South Korean diplomat to Laos. But the unexpected forcible repatriation has caused a bit of a furor between the two nations.
Laos has come under fiery criticism for allegedly endangering the lives of the refugees by sending them back to a country where they will be seen as illegal emigrants, facing the possibility of harsh state reprisals like detention, torture or even execution as “illegal defectors.” But Laos brushed aside the criticism and blamed South Korea for not making any attempts to help, despite knowing about the detained refugees.
The Laotian government holds that both the North Korean and South Korean embassies in the capital Vientiane were informed about the refugees, but only the North moved to take the group, a claim that is refuted by the South Korean government, according to Wall Street Journal. “South Korea made constant requests to visit the North Korean refugees, to have them released to us and to protect them from forced extradition,” according to a senior official in the South Korean government.
In any case, the swift repatriation of the refugees is unusual, causing human rights activists to suggest that North Korea has been more aggressive in recovering defectors since the dictator Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011. The new leader has been operating as a loose cannon, possibly to cement his authority and establish his own brand of authoritarian leadership, in the vein of his predecessors. More importantly, the fate of the nine refugees is of chief concern, with North Korea’s history of persecution testifying to the grave danger to their lives.
For eleven consecutive years, Open Doors has ranked North Korea as the leading persecutor of Christians, a view supported by the Pew Research Center. Christians are targeted for persecution because it is seen as a western poison that is seen as a threat to national security and identity.
The country only permits the practice of Juche, a political-religious ideology which has no room for any god besides the Supreme leader. Therefore, being a Christian is political infidelity, duly punishable by starvation, imprisonment, torture or public execution. According to Open Doors, an estimated 200-400 thousand North Koreans secretly believe in Jesus Christ, with 60-80 thousand said to be living in the communist country's brutal labor camps.
Although the refugees are not likely to be Christians, their escape involved Christians who were trying to bring them to South Korea. Their return to North Korea could bring terrible repercussions, since it is publicly known that they were connected to Christians, a relationship that will not be taken lightly by the authoritarian state.
Since the refugees were deported to China from Laos, some responsibility falls on the nation to ensure their protection, especially since both nations have formally ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which prohibits the forcible return of people to states where they face a substantial risk of being tortured.
Ryan Morgan, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, says: “ICC calls on the Laotian government to take responsibility for this deportation and ensure through regular visits that these nine North Korean orphans and refugees are not mistreated upon their return to North Korea.”
The unfortunate incident has set a disturbing precedent for the future and raises just concern over the safety of future defectors, seeking a way to flee the authoritarian state and find refuge in neighboring nations. South Korea has already pledged more efforts to help people flee the country, saying it would improve coordination with international organizations and the transit-point nations to ensure refugees’ protection and prevent repatriation.
But it remains to be seen whether other nations in the region will display the same commitment to the safety of people seeking to escape from North Korea. As Ryan Morgan also says, “We call on the Laotian government to halt forever the deportation of North Korean refugees to China or any other nation which has a policy of repatriating North Korean refugees. No one should be forced to return to live under a brutal regime which not only completely outlaws religious belief but where they may face starvation, imprisonment, or even execution.”
As the doors close behind the repatriated refugees, shutting them into an unknown fate, nations in the region must rally together to build a safe passageway for future “defectors,” identifying transit-nations, quick escape routes, effective immigration policies and resettlement procedures. These nations need to work closely with South Korea - who will be expected to honor their pledge to support people fleeing their northern neighbor - to ensure that forcible repatriations become a thing of the past.