Laos Wins Refugee Bidding Game as Koreas Vie for SE Asia Influence

By Steve Borowiec 25 July 2013

The competition for influence between North and South Korea in Southeast Asia played itself out last week in Laos, when Seoul announced plans to more than double no-strings development aid to the Laotian government, to 4.84 billion won (US$4.83 million), more than twice the 2.04 billion won from this year.

Analysts say that increased generosity appears related to a group of young North Korean refugees who had escaped from the north and traveled thousands of kilometers across China to seek haven only to be repatriated by Laos in May despite efforts by South Korean diplomats to secure their custody. The rising aid grant is believed tied to making sure that doesn’t happen again.

There was considerable international outcry when the youths, aged 15 to 23, were sent back to the North. Human rights advocates and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees criticized the Laotian decision, noting that international law protects refugees from being forced to return to places where they face persecution.

The refugees were part of a larger group who had been hiding in China for up to four years before they crossed into Laos. China doesn’t recognize refugees and routinely sends back any North Koreans they catch. The other seven managed to make it to Seoul.

Until the decision to send the North Koreans back where they came from, refugees and the groups that work with them had considered Laos a safe haven on refugee routes from China to the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok. The refugees turned over to North Korea were expected to be punished severely, possibly tortured or even killed upon their return.

The implicit message in the decision by Laos to cooperate with North instead of South Korea was that Vientiane had more to gain by appeasing the North. With per capita gross domestic product of US$1,399 according to the World Bank, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, largely dependent on the sale of natural resources to China and Thailand. It therefore looks to aid to help finance its development projects.

Seoul and Pyongyang have long competed for sway in Southeast Asia, and the South’s apparent ability to secure Laos’ cooperation on North Korean refugees now shows it has the upper hand with the ability to buy influence. The May incident constituted a loss of face for Seoul, which also faced harsh criticism at home from human rights groups that criticized what they described as only halfhearted efforts to gain custody of the refugees.

In the immediate aftermath, the South Korean government said it would devise plans to better coordinate with Southeast Asian countries to ensure the safety of more refugees. Seoul could now be hoping that after having received the promised aid, Laos will follow its wishes and prevent another such incident.

Southeast Asian countries like Laos are a common transit point for North Korean defectors after they flee through China on their way to Seoul. Both South and North Korea have an interest in gaining custody of the refugees: the North because it’s a loss of face for the refugees to be fleeing and the South because of the public backlash they face when failing to save the refugees from harsh treatment in the North.

In May, Laotian officials in Seoul said the North Koreans were handled according to protocol and without any special considerations. The Laotian Embassy in Seoul said the refugees were apprehended because they had entered the country without documentation and that they handed them over to North Korea because they were all North Korean nationals.

That seems to contain some sophistry, since refugees have been using Laos as a way point to Bangkok and beyond for years.

Laos may have all along been trying to demonstrate its frustration with Seoul, whose support for the poor, landlocked country had been waning. South Korea’s aid to Laos had fallen to 2 billion won this year, after having been 5.8 billion won in 2009 and 6.8 billion won in 2011. It’s possible that Laos was trying to get Seoul’s attention by using the refugees as leverage. If that was indeed their intention, it appears to have worked.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea has been trying restore relationships with countries it has histories of cooperation with, as was seen in last week’s failed effort to repair some of Cuba’s obsolete weaponry that was caught by authorities at the Panama Canal. Pyongyang, however, is extremely limited in what it can do internationally due to sanctions, which were strengthened in February of this year after the North’s third nuclear test.

Southeast Asia is a logical place for North Korea to look for opportunities because it has histories of productive relations with a few countries in the regions, including Laos, with which it has maintained diplomatic relations since 1974. Twice last year Laos hosted high-level officials from North Korea. Then-People’s Army Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Ho visited in May, followed by an August visit by Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong Nam.

At the time of Kim’s visit, Korean Central News Agency reported that officials from the two countries discussed increasing economic cooperation. “It is the steadfast stand of the DPRK government to develop the traditional relations of friendship with Laos,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

In September 2011, KCNA reported a visit by Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone for a summit with the late Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un reportedly participated in the meeting, which would have been his first official contact with a foreign head of state.

Regardless of North Korea’s efforts at diplomacy, South Korea is still a much bigger economic player in the region. Bilateral trade between South Korea and the Asean bloc was US$124.9 billion in 2011, making Asean South Korea’s second largest trade partner after China.

South Korea and Laos established diplomatic relations in 1974, though that only lasted until the following year when a communist government came to power in Vientiane. Relations were re-established in 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union when Laos began to look outward.

Steven Borowiec, [email protected], is a writer based in South Korea.