By Jhoo Dong-chan
The government is facing mounting criticism for doing nothing about 10 North Korean defectors who were apprehended in Vietnam and immediately deported to China. A human rights group said it had asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the local Korean embassy, for help but had received no assistance.
Peter Jung, a Christian pastor who is active in helping North Koreans escape from the North to begin a new life in South Korea, said during a telephone interview with the Voice of America that the 10, including one teenager and two men in their 20s, were stopped in the border area of Vietnam last month.
He said the defectors are now missing, after Vietnamese border guards handed them over to their Chinese counterparts.
Jung claimed he asked the Korean embassy for help, but officials there did nothing.
"One of these defectors who had a cell phone called the Korean embassy in Vietnam," he said.
"The Korean officials there said they should wait. They never visited or returned the phone call. For six days, the Korean authorities did nothing with their arms folded."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of the situation and was taking active measures to bring the defectors to the South. The ministry would not say where the defectors were currently.
According to reports, the defectors left China and tried to enter Vietnam, Nov. 21, being guided by "escape brokers."
The defectors were reportedly apprehended in the border area between Vietnam and Laos by the Vietnamese border guards Nov. 28 and were deported to China immediately after questioning.
An increasing number of North Korean defectors are choosing Vietnam as a gateway to Seoul as ties between Seoul and Hanoi are growing following Korean companies' boosting of their investments in the country.
Their escape route consists of crossing the Tumen River, either when it is frozen, or shallow in summer, and then taking a train across China to Vietnam. There, most defectors either work illegally or try to travel immediately to South Korea, according to news reports.
South Korean expatriates also operate four of the largest safe houses for North Korean defectors in Vietnam. In July 2004, 468 North Korean defectors were flown from Vietnam to Seoul ― the largest mass defection ever.
The government recently came under fire from human rights groups for deporting two North Korean fishermen to the North last month. The fishermen were alleged to have killed 16 fellow crewmembers on their squid fishing boat in October.
During questioning by South Korean officials, the two said they suffered months of verbal abuse and habitual assaults from the captain.
Additionally, the two consistently said they wished to defect to South Korea, including making requests in their own handwriting, according to official documents.
However, the government deported the two, claiming their statements were "inconsistent."
South Korea's human rights groups immediately condemned the decision to send them to the North, where they were likely to face torture and summary execution.
Opposition lawmakers also denounced the decision based on South Korea's Constitution that, in theory, recognizes North Koreans as South Korean nationals, who should have access to South Korean law.
South Korea usually accepts North Korean refugees following a background check. Therefore, the lawmakers claim, the government should have provided the defectors with proper legal protection until a court here had decided if they were guilty of a crime.