February 2012 was the last time we called attention to the repatriation of North Korean refugees. Sadly, we are obliged to do so again. The refugees in question are a group of nine teenagers and young adults: two girls aged (in Korean age) 15 and 16, and seven males ranging in age from 16 to 23. The group or some part of it had escaped through China to Laos—a major transit point for North Korean refugees—with the help of a South Korean couple involved in the underground railroad; it is possible that those ultimately deported included others in detention. Joongang Daily has a good graphic and timeline of the affair.
The group of refugees was apprehended on May 10, at which point the story becomes a little more murky and puzzling. South Korea claimed that it asked Laos to send them to Seoul, which Laos had allowed following interrogation in the past. This time, however, Laos stalled and refused access. By the time Laotian officials got back to the South Korean embassy, it was to inform them that the nine had been deported. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se convened an emergency meeting on the issue, but it was too late; the group was on its way through Kunming and Beijing back to Pyongyang.
The couple who orchestrated the crossing, however, painted a less flattering portrait of the South Korean embassy’s response and a more sinister picture of what the North Koreans are doing in Laos. The North Korean embassy and security personnel jumped on the case as soon as they became aware of the detention and apparently persuaded Laotian officials—through some means or another—to release the refugees to their custody. The missionary involved in the crossing even suggested that North Koreans had posed as Laotian officials. While South Korea has asked China repeatedly not to repatriate North Koreans, Beijing claimed that Chinese involvement in the case was limited because the party—almost certainly including North Korean security personnel—had appropriate transit visas.
Laos might try to hide behind the fact that it is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention, even though customary international law would suggest caution in deporting someone to a jurisdiction where they are likely to be tortured or “disappeared.” It is too soon to know with certainty what the Chinese knew about this extraction effort; its possible that the North Koreans slipped the entire group under the radar. But China has been guilty of repatriating refugees before, and as we have repeated ad nauseum such behavior (“refoulement”) is an unambiguous violation of the Refugee Convention—to which China is a signatory—as well as the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (our take on this angle here).
The issue is not sitting well anywhere. South Korea sent a special envoy to Laos to protest and to press for protocols for handling such detentions in the future. The Park administration is apparently undecided about whether they should bring the issue to the forthcoming summit with Xi Jinping because of ambiguity about what the Chinese knew. Human Rights Watch takes a less forgiving stance; their press release contains a good summary of the legal arguments. A US official quoted by Yonhap also suggested Chinese culpability, urging Beijing to abide by its commitments under the Refugee Convention. The office of the UNHCR also issued a strongly worded statement that the prohibition on refoulement has the status of customary international law, and is thus binding on Laos even if it is not a signatory. The office is also calling on North Korea to account for the whereabouts and safety of the returnees. We have a funny feeling about this case; it doesn’t look like it is going away any time soon.