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Two-year efforts to help N. Korean teenagers escape failed

Two-year efforts to help N. Korean teenagers escape failed

Posted May. 31, 2013 06:23,   


“I’m devastated,”

In an interview with the Dong-A Ilbo on Wednesday, Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, expressed her feelings about the forceful repatriation of the nine North Korean teenage defectors. She participated in the defection plan for the teenagers from the beginning. Scholte seemed furious when saying, “I had no idea our two-year plan would end up like this. I can’t believe (North Korea) took these innocent kids back to the country.”

The Dong-A Ilbo decided not to reveal the names of the nine North Korean teenagers for their safety. The following is the interview with Scholte.

The Dong-A Ilbo: When did you hear the nine teenagers were forcefully taken back to North Korea?

Scholte: After the kids were detained by the Laotian immigration authorities, I checked with a missionary surnamed Joo in Laos over the phone how things were going. Until last Friday the missionary was positive about the situation and said the nine kids would be able to go to Korea. But on Monday morning I heard the teens were expelled. It was late night on Monday in Korean time. Something must have gone wrong on the weekend.”

The Dong-A Ilbo: Tell us about the nine North Korean teenagers.

Scholte: Twelve North Korean teenagers, including the nine, lived in China over the past four to five years with the help of the missionary. It’s not true that they ran away from North Korea early this year. We decided to help them leave China because the crackdown by Chinese police has become more severe, and overall situation has become tougher.

The Dong-A Ilbo: How did you divide the groups?

Scholte: We divided them into two groups according to their wishes. One group for South Korea and the other group for the United States. Two youngests, a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old, and a 16-year-old with intellectual disability chose to go to the U.S. This decision was made after taking Joo’s opinion into consideration, who suggested this idea.

The Dong-A Ilbo: When was this plan started?

Scholte: We began with a plan to send the kids to the U.S. in September 2011. The operation title was “Operation Rising Eagle.” I sent a letter written by a North Korean child to U.S. President Barack Obama. Though we didn’t receive a reply, we worked on the plan with a close cooperation of the U.S. Department of State. The Korean counterpart also helped. As a result, we could bring the three to Thailand, a country that is relatively cooperative in this effort, in August 2012. We kept secret the arrival of the three children at the U.S. for the sake of the other nine’s safety.

The Dong-A Ilbo: Did you start working on the plan for the nine teenagers right away?

Scholte: After sending the three to the U.S. successfully, we began working on sending the nine to Korea. We were going to take the same route with the former three, going to Korea via Thailand. However, on their way to Thailand they were caught in Laos out of the blue.

The Dong-A Ilbo: Was that the first time taking route via Laos when helping North Korean defectors?

Scholte: No. We took the route many times in the past. Laos had been cooperative in the matter of North Korean defectors until recently. North Korea must have worked hard to make Laos to take its side.

The Dong-A Ilbo: You’ve done a lot of things. For example, you took the lead in holding a hearing on the issue that China sent North Korean defectors forcefully back to Pyongyang, and arranged a demonstration in front of Chinese embassy to the United States.

Scholte: I believe countries around the world should make a strong protest against the Laotian government. If North Koreans are sent back, they will be severely tortured if not killed. The Laotian government should take responsibility for what it did, sending the North Korean kids back to the country while knowing this.

The Dong-A Ilbo: The number of North Korean defectors is said to have been reduced since Kim Jong Un took office.

Scholte: The North Korean government has strengthened its system to prevent defection. Taking back even children who ran away from the country out of hunger demonstrates how vicious the regime under Kim Jong Un is. It also shows how vulnerable the regime is.