1. (SBU) We met August 3 with a counterpart at the ROK Consulate in HCMC to follow up on press reports that the four hundred and fifty North Korean refugees that defected recently to South Korea did so via HCMC. (On July 27 and July 28, 450 North Koreans refugees arrived in Seoul, the single largest defection since the end of the Korean War in 1953. A Seoul-based NGO, the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, announced that the refugees had been residing for months in safe houses provided by South Korean residents in HCMC. The NGO also announced that the two charter aircraft carried the refugees to Seoul from HCMC.)
2. (SBU) Our ROK colleague confirmed that the refugees were transferred from China across the Vietnamese border and then transported via Hanoi to HCMC. In HCMC they were housed with sympathizers in the 12,000 strong South Korean community in the HCMC area. The ROK counterpart said that the operation was run by the chief of the "National Security Academy" section in the ROK Embassy in Hanoi.
3. (SBU) When asked how 450 undocumented North Korean refugees could pass through Vietnamese immigration and customs checks at Tan Son Nhat airport in HCMC, the ROK representative replied that the refugees were provided documentation showing that they were "South Korean laborers" returning to Korea. A separate Vietnamese source confirmed that airport immigration processed hundreds of Korean workers who allegedly prolonged their stay in Vietnam after their labor contracts expired. Our source said the Koreans were repatriated under the supervision of Vietnamese authorities and in coordination with the Korean Consulate in HCMC. He expressed skepticism over the cover story, but said that local authorities considered the matter to be sensitive and ordered it not be discussed further. GVN sensitivity to the issue also was reflected in the absence of any reporting in the state-controlled media, despite the story being picked up by the international press.
4. (SBU) Our ROK colleague said that the GVN was "angry" that the Korean press leaked the details of the repatriation operation. He acknowledged that Vietnam was placed in an awkward situation, as it strives to maintain good relations with both North and South Korea.
5. (SBU) Comment: The implication of our discussions with our contacts is that the GVN quietly collaborated with the ROK to assist in the humanitarian repatriation of North Korean refugees to the South. What was in it for the GVN is unclear, as exposure of the program could create frictions with the DPRK and even with China, given its sensitivity on the issue. Our ROK colleague expressed disgust and the Korean press, which broke the story and fretted about the implications of the leak for the future of the North Korean refugee "underground railroad." End Comment.