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Laos changes attitude over defector issue at last minute: source


SEOUL, May 31 (Yonhap) -- A high-level Laotian official showed a postitive response to South Korea over an issue involving nine North Korean defectors even hours before his government deported them to their home country earlier this week, a diplomatic source here said Friday, giving to suspicion of a cover-up over the deportation.

South Korean ambassador to Laos Lee Gun-tae met with the unidentified vice minister-level official of the Laotian Foreign Ministry on Monday at 9:30 a.m. to repeatedly call for the transfer of the defectors. The official indicated that the situation would come to a smooth solution, the source said, asking not to be named.

However, the defectors were expelled aboard a flight at 2:45 p.m. the same day to North Korea via China, according to the source.

Also, according to the source, on May 10 -- the day the defectors were apprehended by Laotian authorities -- the Laotian government communicated to the South Korean embassy that the situation would be favorably handled. Laos went so far as to tell the embassy on May 20 and 22 to prepare for the transfer, according to the source.

However, on May 23 Laos suddenly changed its attitude, saying that they need more time to hand over the defectors.

At around 6 p.m. Monday, Laos notified the South Korean embassy of their deportation, several hours after the plane took off, the source said.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Lee said in a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency earlier in the day that he "knows nothing" about the identities of the nine defectors.

He made the remarks when asked about unconfirmed media reports that the son of a Japanese woman who abducted by North Korea in 1970s might be among the North Koreans.

"I knows nothing about the identities of the North Korean defectors," Lee said. Citing his brief conversation with the South Korean couple who helped them in Laos, Lee said, "When I met the South Korean couple, they didn't tell me about it."

Lee also said his embassy had asked the Lao authorities to visit the defectors on the day they were caught, denying a media report by the Wall Street Journal that it didn't request a meeting with them.

"The report is not true," Lee said, when asked about the report, which cited Khantivong Somlith, the minister consular at the Lao Embassy in Seoul, saying the South Korean Embassy didn't file an official request to visit the North Korean defectors.

Lee and other South Korean officials in Seoul have said their government has diplomatic letters and other documents that can prove the request was made to the Lao government.

The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, were flown home on Tuesday from China after being caught in Laos on May 10, despite South Korea's plea to send them to Seoul.

During their detention in Laos, South Korean officials have said their government had asked Laos to interview them as part of its efforts to send them to the South. But Khantivong Somlith, the minister consular at the Lao Embassy in Seoul, told the Wall Street Journal that Seoul didn't file an official request to visit them.

"We expected them to do that (request a visit)," the Journal quoted Somlith as saying in a Seoul-datelined report.

In a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency on Friday, Somlith refuted the report.

"I didn't say that," Somlith said. "The comments are wrongly reported. I didn't say that."

Asked whether South Korea had asked the Lao government to visit them, Somlith replied, "Yes."

The nine North Koreans were detained by the Lao authorities "because they illegally entered Laos. At the time, we didn't know whether they were South Koreans or North Koreans."

"When they moved into Vientiane, our foreign ministry informed both South Korean and North Korean embassies of their detention," the minister counselor said.

South Korea's foreign ministry and its embassy in Laos have been under fire for allegedly failing their duty to protect the North Koreans.

The ministry has not officially confirmed information on North Korean asylum seekers in consideration of their safety and relations with countries involved.

Diplomatic sources in Seoul say at least one North Korean agent was on board the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang with the defectors, indicating that the North Korean government was involved in the deportation.

Still, questions remain over why the deportation of the nine North Korean defectors from Laos to North Korea was carried out in a very speedy and special manner.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se sent a special envoy, Ambassador Lee Jeong-kwan, to Laos and lodged a "strong protest" with the Lao government for deporting the North Koreans, Seoul officials said.

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