On Saturday, the Washington Post ran a front-page article on the story of North Korean refugees, or defectors, in Laos. It has been well-known for years that many North Koreans who try to get to South Korea transit through either Laos, Thailand, or Cambodia after leaving China. But until recently the government of Laos, though hard-line authoritarian, mostly seemed to ignore the fleeing North Koreans, as long as they had the money to pay off the right people and then get to the South Korean embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, or to the border with Thailand. Yet in May, Laos’ government suddenly sent nine fleeing North Koreans, nearly all of whom are orphans, back to the North. The group had been detained by Laos’ security forces, but in the past North Koreans who had been detained often were let go, in exchange for cash, and then continued on to Thailand or to the South Korean embassy. This time,Laos’ government did not release the detainees, instead handing them over to Pyongyang.
With countries as opaque as Laos and North Korea, it can be hard to draw conclusions about any event, but the Post and other news outlets offer several speculations. One, that North Korea is pushing Southeast Asian nations harder to crack down on refugees, possibly providing financial incentives to do so. Or, the harsh and xenophobic government of Laos may have become more skittish about giving rights to anyone, including fleeing North Koreans, after facing a torrent of international criticism for the disappearance, last winter, of Laos’ best-known activist, who vanished after being seen at a police station in Vientiane.
What is interesting is that few of the news stories talk about the role of China, and whether China may have influenced the behavior of Laos– and potentially of other Southeast Asian nations with North Korean refugees in the future. Over the past decade,China has replaced Vietnam as the most important foreign actor in Laos: China is on track to becoming the largest investor in the country, pouring billions into Laos’ hydroelectric plants and roads and rails and other physical infrastructure, and Beijing has upgraded its defense ties with Laos significantly since the late 1990s. In the past five years, as China has become more assertive in its regional relations, and countries like Laos and Cambodia more dependent on Chinese investment and aid, Beijing has become more aggressive about enlisting Southeast Asian nations’ assistance in returning refugees from China itself, such as fleeing Uighurs. Cambodia, for example, in 2009 returned a group of fleeing Uighurs to China; shortly after this repatriation, which was condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR, China pledged nearly a billion dollars in grants and loans to Cambodia.
It is very possible that the pressure on the government of Laos to return the North Koreans came as much from China as from Pyongyang. Beijing has never considered the fleeing North Koreans refugees, always referring to them as economic migrants, or illegal economic migrants, thus depriving them of official refugee status in China. And in recent years China has taken a more proactive stance in deporting North Koreans from inside China back to the North. Overall, Beijing apparently wants to decrease the flow of fleeing North Koreans, to take no chances of destabilizing northeastern China with an influx of migrants or of destabilizing North Korea itself. As China becomes closer to the government of Laos, which in the past had more astutely played China and Vietnam and Thailand off of each other, preserving some measure of independence (at least as much independence as a tiny, poor, land-locked nation could have), Beijing likely is applying more pressure on Vientiane to proactively deport North Koreans. Combined with appeals from Pyongyang to Southeast Asian nations not to harbor fleeing refugees, China’s weighing in may create a new, even more dangerous situation for North Koreans in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, or even Thailand.
Right now, there are still at least twenty more North Koreans in the South Korean embassy in Vientiane. Will they face the same fate?