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Defectors en route to South via third country

Foreign Ministry also working on North Koreans in Russia case
Apr 08,2019
Three North Korean defectors who were expelled from Vietnam to China last week safely made their way into another Southeast Asian country en route to South Korea, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry revealed Friday.

The ministry earlier came under fire from a number of local media outlets for what appeared to be the failure to rescue the three defectors. The man in his 30s and two women in their 20s were arrested by Vietnamese military authorities in the Ha Tinh Province after crossing the border with China last Monday.

The human rights organization that arranged the defectors’ escape claimed they had requested the South Korean government’s assistance but were met with an inert response, which they claimed eventually resulted in the defectors’ expulsion. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday dismissed this allegation as inaccurate, saying it made proper diplomatic efforts to prevent their forced repatriation.

According to a Radio Free Asia report on Thursday that cited the human rights group, the Vietnamese border guards released the North Koreans across the border in China, instead of handing them over to Chinese security forces, who would likely have repatriated them to the North. This allowed the defectors to make a second successful crossing into another Southeast Asian country where they are now waiting for asylum from South Korea, the report said.

“[The defectors] have made it safely to a third country, though we cannot reveal which country this is due to our diplomatic relations with them,” a Foreign Ministry official elaborated on Friday. “Further details also cannot be disclosed because of the support that we many need to provide the defectors in the future.”

It is not known what role Seoul’s efforts played in the defectors’ treatment under Vietnamese custody, but the ministry stressed on Friday that it is investing diplomatic efforts into helping the North’s defectors abroad reach asylum in the country of their choice.

Adding that incorrect press reports do not help the safety of North Korean defectors, the ministry also urged the media to cover the issue with caution. This was likely a reference to the conservative Chosun Ilbo, which used the defectors’ story to slam the Foreign Ministry last Thursday.

The official also brought up the case of three other North Korean defectors who were arrested last month trying to cross the Mongolian border into Russia. The three people - ranging in ages from their 40s to 60s - are believed to have filed for refugee status in Russia with the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees. The official said that the ministry is in talks with Russian authorities and the UN to rescue them.

As a response to repeated criticism in past over the forced repatriation of defectors in third countries, the Foreign Ministry in 2013 set up a special task force called the Korean Community Team to support the resettlement of these North Koreans in the South and streamline the ministry’s diplomatic efforts to prevent refugees from coming into the hands of North Koreans authorities.

Those who are forcibly repatriated to the North are branded as traitors and usually face harsh penalties, such as confinement in labor camps or sometimes even death.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]