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

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.

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.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Jeong