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U.S. Helps 13 North Korean Escapees Held in Vietnam Reach Safety

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/4/2020 Andrew Jeong

© Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo SEOUL—Caught halfway into a multicountry escape from North Korea, 13 individuals detained in Vietnam reached safety last month due to an unexpected helping hand: the U.S. government.

A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts, according to people familiar with the episode. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.

U.S. officials acted quickly because Vietnam could have deported the North Koreans within days, the people said, playing a key role when the escapees’ fates were in doubt. All 13 are safe, they added; their locations weren’t immediately known.

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The South Korean government, which typically takes the lead in such matters, had initially appeared to back off from actively helping the escapees, leaving a void that required an advocate to interject, one of the people said.

South Korea’s foreign ministry, which President Moon Jae-in’s office directed an inquiry to, said it had played a role with the North Koreans’ release, but it didn’t elaborate when or how. Vietnamese officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

The Trump administration has faced backlash from lawmakers and activists for not challenging Pyongyang enough on human-rights violations. The criticism grew louder earlier last month when Washington chose not to convene a U.N. Security Council meeting about North Korea’s human-rights record.

But around the same stretch of time, American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials, according to the people familiar with the episode.

The State Department declined to comment. It’s uncommon for American officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.

The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes, according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea, whose constitution immediately grants citizenship to North Koreans fleeing the Kim regime. That means Seoul, by law, is required to protect any escapee in trouble, with a few exceptions.

President Moon, who has sought to warm ties with the North after taking office in 2017, has come under criticism from human-rights groups and politicians for prioritizing inter-Korean relations over the Kim regime’s human-rights abuses.

Some South Korean officials have expressed concern over pushing Pyongyang too hard on human rights as it could undermine inter-Korean relations and denuclearization talks.

Protesters rallied in front of the presidential Blue House in May over a passive South Korean response to a 9-year-old girl of North Korean descent being detained in China. In November, the Moon administration deported two North Korean fisherman who had requested to relocate to the South. It was the first time South Korea had ever repatriated escapees back to the North.

Seoul officials said the two North Koreans, who stood accused of murdering their fellow fishing crew, were criminal suspects and allowing them into the country could endanger South Koreans.

Mintaro Oba, a former official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”

Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate already stalled nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang has reacted angrily to Washington’s repeated criticisms of its human-rights abuses.

Recently, on Dec. 21, North Korea warned the U.S. would “pay dearly” if American officials continued to raise human-rights issues with the Kim regime. Days later, the U.S. chose not to convene the U.N. session addressing the Kim regime’s human-rights abuses.

Vietnam serves as a stopover for many North Koreans seeking freedom. Most first cross the Chinese border, then go through Vietnam or another country before ending up in South Korea.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South over the decades. Most of them risked their lives in coming to the South as the Kim regime punishes those who flee the country.

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

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