Lao bounty sought for N Koreans
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
An organisation dedicated to helping North Korean refugees says police in Laos are demanding US$1,000 to hand over three children who were attempting to flee North Korea.
A spokesman for the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees said it was refusing to pay, saying it feared setting off a 'bounty hunt' for North Korean refugees.
Hiroshi Kato, chairman of the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, met the children - a 12-year-old boy, his 14-year-old sister and another girl of 17 - in a prison and said they were 'in a panic' after a visit by North Korean consulate staff, who threatened severe punishment when they are repatriated.
They were arrested 14 weeks ago while crossing the Mekong River into Laos with the intention of continuing on to Thailand and, ultimately, starting new lives in the US. Their three-month prison sentences have concluded, but they remain incarcerated after the group's refusal to pay for their release.
'Groups like ours are short of resources, and we are very concerned that paying bribes or bounty money could set a precedent that would see Laotian border police hunting down North Korean refugees,' said Kim Sang-hun, an international human rights volunteer from South Korea. 'It's a lot of money by local standards.'
Mr Kato said: 'Under North Korea's criminal code, a sentence of 11 years' forced labour is possible, although they could also be sentenced to death.'
He criticised other governments that have refused to intervene, saying the South Korean embassy is interested in helping only defecting party officials or members of North Korea's military.
Letters by the three children have been brought out of the prison, with Kim Hyang, 14, pleading: 'I am writing as the last chance of a drowning person who will clutch at a straw.
'The North Korean embassy interrogated us and took down all the information on April 6. We are unfortunate children who came here in search of freedom and are now at risk of losing our lives.
'If any person can give us that freedom, we will remain grateful for the rest of our lives. We can accept anything except going back to North Korea.'
Appealing to the Laotian government to release the children into the care of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, Mr Kim said: 'This is a very grave case of international justice, humanitarianism and international law being challenged by the government of Laos.
'Is the world community going to tolerate such defiance or stand up to uphold justice?'