North Korean defectors handed back by Laos to a harsh future | Asia Pacific

North Korean defectors handed back by Laos to a harsh future

North Korean defectors handed back by Laos to a harsh future

Updated 30 May 2013, 22:21 AEST

They make a dangerous journey travelling thousands of kilometres but the epic trips made by North Korean refugees don't always have happy endings.

Nine North Koreans, some as young as 15 have just been returned to Pyongyang after being arrested in Laos.

After escape, arrest and repatriation the group faces a dark future.

: Correspondent: Timothy Pope

Speakers: Phil Robertson, Director for Asia, Human Rights Watch; Kim Eun-young; Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Seoul

POPE: The group of young refugees probably thought they'd made it to safety. But after escaping North Korea and travelling through China they were arrested in Laos.

It's a popular transit point for those fleeing Pyongyang from there they can hop to Thailand and seek refugee status in South Korea. But for this group it all went wrong. Lao authorities decided to deport them. Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Phil Robertson

ROBERTSON: We don't know why this case was different. We don't know why this group was apprehended when other groups have been allowed through. It may be that the right people were not payed off it may be that there was a different group leading these people. It's really quite unclear. The only people who know would be the Laos authorities

POPE: He says refugees from North Korea don't have a realistic alternative to Laos if they want to get away.

ROBERTSON: Now that Laos has proven that it will cooperate with North Korea to violate the rights of people who should be receiving asylum rather than being sent back I think that the people who are assisting these North Koreans to flee their country are going to have to be more careful when it comes to Laos.

POPE: The harrowing journey for these refugees starts long before the North Korean border. Since coming to power, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has bolstered border patrols to keep the population inside.

North Korea's border with its southern neighbour is heavily militarised, so anyone wanting out is forced to cross north into China Would-be refugees are forced to bribe soldiers and officials to look the other way while they make their escape.

But South Korean activists say that's getting more difficult under the new regime. Kim Eun-young from the Seoul-based Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights says escaping is getting more and more risky.

KIM: The whole process is very dangerous. and plus people cannot really tell anybody about their plan to escape - of course - and they secretly need to find out who can really help them. So the whole of the process is very dangerous because once they're caught or they're deported from some third countries they'll be severely punished.

POPE: But Ms Kim says when they get to China they face a journey of thousands of kilometres through a country where authorities regard them as illegal migrants and would send them back to Pyongyang if they're caught. She says if they can't find help usually from missionary groups or people smugglers they don't have much hope.

KIM: If they find somebody who could help them with money and directions who know the directions all the way to South Korea, only those people can actually try to escape from China.

POPE: So after braving all that, it would come as an especially big blow for the seven young men and two women, to be arrested in a country that has, historically, helped them on their way.

Ms Kim says the South Korean Foreign Ministry didn't do enough during their three weeks under arrest in Laos to try and stop their deportation back to China from where they were sent back to Pyongyang. But Phil Robertson disagrees:

ROBERTSON: The criticism of the South Korean Government in my view is misplaced. Really the villains here are the Laos Government, the China Government and the North Korean Government.

POPE: He says now that the group is back in Pyongyang, they'll face interrogation, torture and a long sentence in forced labour camps where inmates are starved

ROBERTSON: The nine who have been sent back I expect will be sent to such a camp. The fact that they were going through Laos leaves very little doubt in anyone's mind that they were going to South Korea so the North Korean authorities will probably treat them extremely badly.

POPE: The numbers of North Korean defecters has plummeted in recent years. In 2011 more than two and a half thousand made it all the way to Seoul. Last year that dropped to only 15 hundred.As of March this year only 300 people had arrived. Now, with a shadow cast over one of the major stops along the way, the road to South Korea just became a lot more rocky.

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