The three young North Koreans - an orphaned brother and sister and a girl with a heart ailment - say they traveled more than 3,000 kilometers on foot, bus and train, begging their way and hoping to reach the United States.
In November, more than three years after they fled their impoverished Communist homeland, the three apparently reached Laos. There they rested for a week in preparation for what they believed would be a final step toward freedom: a boat ride across the Mekong River into Thailand, where it is relatively easy for North Koreans to win the refugee status that can allow them to proceed to South Korea and beyond.
According to human rights activists, they never made it. They were intercepted by Laotian border guards and taken to a detention center in Vientiane, the capital. There they remain while North and South Korean diplomats tussle over custody.
The plights of 13-year-old Choi Hyang; her brother, Choi Hyok, 12; and their traveling companion, Choi Hyang Mi, 17, became public this month as a result of handwritten appeals for help that they wrote after North Korean diplomats interrogated them April 6.
The letters were made public by Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese human rights activist, whose colleagues visited the detainees to deliver food and other aid.
Typewritten statements from the children were released by Tim Peters, whose Seoul-based group Helping Hands Korea has been trying to draw international attention to their predicament since November.
Rights groups said that Laotian officials had refused to release the children and that some had demanded bribes after finding out that the children had advocates in South Korea and the United States. "When you start paying ransoms, then you are setting up a situation where security people are beginning to act like bounty hunters," Peters said.
Meanwhile, as discussions continue over their fate, the children have appealed to their helpers to "just pay the money" to get them released. In their letters, they cite figures of $1,000 or $2,000.
"Dear Americans. If you don't offer us a helping hand, they are going to kill us," Choi Hyok said in his handwritten letter. "I pray to my Lord to let me live in freedom and go to school in freedom."
[Excerpt of an article by Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune]