A group of six human rights activists from Europe, Asia, and Oceania was in Vientiane, Laos, recently to coordinate efforts on behalf of North Korean refugees when they decided to move beyond mere words. Here is an excerpt from the letter one of them e-mailed me recently:
It has come to our attention that twelve North Korean defectors have recently arrived in Laos after traveling through China. They were on their way to freedom in South Korea, but have since been stranded in Vientiane.
We have interviewed them and are convinced that they are eligible for refugee status and international protection under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, accredited by 140 countries. There is no doubt that, if they are repatriated, these refugees will face heavy prison terms, or even the death penalty.
Also, let it be noted that North Korean defectors are officially recognized as refugees, under the above convention and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
For this reason, we have helped this group of refugees enter the Embassy of South Korea in Vientiane, Laos, 11:55 hours, Thursday, 27 March 2008.
They have entered the embassy with the hope of protection.
In the name of humanity and humanitarianism, we wish to respectfully appeal to the Government of Laos to provide them with a safe exit to South Korea. [e-mail message from Human Rights Without Frontiers]
The signatories to the letter are Willy Fautre, Director, Human Rights Without Frontiers International, of Brussels; Pierre Rigoulot, of the International Society for Human Rights in Paris; Steve Buttell from HRWF South-East Asia, of New Zealand; Phromlak Sakphichaimongkhon, a lawyer from Bangkok; Peter Chung, the Director of Justice for NK, from Seoul; Hiroshi Kato, Representative of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, from Tokyo.
Yonhap’s report of the incident claims the twelve “forced” their way into the embassy, which doesn’t appear to be true based on the above (Yonhap’s slant in KCNA’s direction didn’t end with President Lee’s inauguration). Nonetheless, it is good to see a South Korean embassy react appropriately to such an event:
“We’re going to respect what they want based on humanitarianism and international customs,” the South Korean Ambassador to Vientiane Park Jae-hyun told Yonhap News Agency by phone.
He said the people are now in good condition and under the embassy’s custody. However, he did not specify whether the presumed defectors expressed hope to settle in South Korea. [Yonhap]
Recall that the South Koreans recently agreed to fly up to 75 refugees a week — just under 4,000 a year — from Bangkok to Seoul. Amid a worsening food situation in the North and a more welcoming approach from the South, that number will soon prove to be grossly insufficient. We will soon start to see much larger numbers of North Koreans arriving in Southeast Asia to seek asylum.