04/13/2007, 00.00
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A thousand dollars for the lives of three North Korean children

Laotian police, which arrested the three young refugees, now wants an NGO to pay for their release. The organisation is concerned that paying now would mean open season for North Korean refugees as bounty hunters go after them. Should they be repatriated the three children could be sentenced to death.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Laotian police is demanding a thousand dollars to release three North Korean children detained at its border as they fled Kim jong-il’s Stalinist regime, this according to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. A spokesman for the Tokyo-based organisation said that the NGO would not pay, fearing that payment would set off a "bounty hunt" for North Korean refugees.

Life Funds Chairman Hiroshi Kato met the children—a 12-year-old boy, his 14-year-old sister and another girl of 17—in a prison and said they were "in a panic" after a visit by North Korean consular staff, who threatened severe punishment when they are repatriated.

They were arrested 14 weeks ago while crossing the Mekong River into Laos with the intention of continuing on to Thailand and, ultimately, starting new lives in the US. Their three-month sentence is over but they remain in prison because the police still expects payment.

“Groups like ours are short of resources, and we are very concerned that paying bribes or bounty money could set a precedent that would see Laotian border police hunting down North Korean refugees," said Kim Sang-hun, an international human rights volunteer from South Korea. "It's a lot of money by local standards.”

But what worriers Chairman Kato is the fact that “under North Korea's criminal code, a sentence of 11 years' forced labour is possible, although they could also be sentenced to death.”

Mr Kato criticised other governments for refusing to intervene. He is especially scathing about the South Korean embassy which is interested in helping only defecting party officials or members of North Korea's military.

Letters by the three children have been brought out of the prison, with Kim Hyang, 14, saying: “I am writing as the last chance of a drowning person who will clutch at a straw. The North Korean embassy interrogated us and took down all the information on April 6. We are unfortunate children who came here in search of freedom and are now at risk of losing our lives.”

Kim concluded her letter with a plea: “If any person can give us that freedom, we will remain grateful [to them] for the rest of our lives. We can accept anything except going back to North Korea.”

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