Shortly after the International Coalition to stop crimes in North Korea (ICNK) confirmed that Laos had handed back nine defectors, South Korean diplomatic sources made it known it was holding another 20 North Koreans seeking asylum in its embassy in Vientiane.
The 20 include children, people with physical disabilities, and cancer patients who have met lawmaker Kim Jae-won of the Saenuiri Party, who arrived in Laos last week. Most are in relatively good health.
While they remain within the reasonably safe confines of the embassy their future is far from certain, particularly given the treatment of the nine deported about two weeks ago.
Despite being within embassy walls, all will be interviewed by Lao immigration authorities and need to obtain travel permits and pay fines for illegally entering the country. The Laos government under Prime Minister Thongsing Thamavong has ignored mounting pressure over its human rights record and shown even less concern for people in distressing situations seeking help.
Of the nine already deported, all were barely adults, and were returned via China which has emerged as a principal investor in Laos and its ambitious infrastructure program, with billions of dollars earmarked for dams, bridges, airports and roads.
Objections to their forced repatriation were loud. It is thought to be the first time that Laos had bowed to Chinese demands and deported North Koreans back to the Hermit Kingdom.
The UN said it was extremely concerned for the nine, aged between 15 and 23, saying they were “at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment” and had demanded independent access and guarantees for their safety. About 25,000 North Koreans have fled the Stalinist state since the end of the Korean War; 1,500 last year alone.
Travelling through China is the preferred route – overland by bus, through the mountains and into the jungles of northern Laos and often to Thailand where they usually hope to contact the South Korean embassy in Bangkok.
Tiny, landlocked Laos remains a highly secretive communist country which has maintained fluctuating relations with China since the Pathet Laos seized power in 1975. The nation has largely remained within the Vietnamese political realm, but differences over the construction of dams on the main stream of the Mekong River and Chinese investment pledges have sorely tested that relationship.
Its recent admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was overshadowed by last December’s disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an NGO worker who had championed local farmers and sustainable development.
CCTV footage obtained by relatives shows Sombath being pulled over along a busy road and later bundled into a police car, but authorities insist they know nothing of his whereabouts. Instead they have been boasting about winning “the World’s Best Tourist Destination 2013” by the European Council on Tourism and Trade, which is designed to encourage local entrepreneurs to improve their services.
The award left many long-term watchers bemused – a heartfelt congratulations seemed inappropriate.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.