Laos to Free N. Korean Kids If Japan NGO Pays Money

Korea Times
4/9/2007

A Laotian government official has demanded that a Japanese nongovernmental organization seeking the release of three North Korean teenagers from a Laotian prison pay $1,000 in cash per detainee, Kyodo News reported Sunday.

The Japanese news agency quoted Hiroshi Kato, chairman of the Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, as saying that the Tokyo-based group has rejected the idea of paying, but it is concerned Laos could accede to Pyongyang’s demands and extradite the three youths to North Korea.

According to Kato, the three detainees are a 17-year-old girl, a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, all from North Hamgyong Province in northeastern North Korea.

They smuggled themselves into China in the early 2000s after suffering food shortages, the death of their parents and other hardships in their homeland. Now they hope to find exile in the United States.

The children were caught by Laotian border security officials in November as they were crossing the Mekong River in an attempt to go to Thailand via Laos, said Kato, who met them in a prison in Vientiane.

They were given a three-month prison term for illegal entry into Laos. Although the three months have passed, they are still being detained, Kyodo quoted Kato as saying.

Kato’s group contacted the Laotian government to become guarantors for the youths and was told by a government official they could be handed over to the Japanese group for $1,000 each.

The NGO decided to reject the request, fearing it would set a bad example in seeking the protection of North Korean refugees in Laos.

But the group is concerned that a North Korean consul, which visited the prison Friday, will demand that Vientiane deport the three to North Korea.

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