North Korea and South Korea maintain strict separation most everywhere in the world. Yet oddly, one of the few places they intersect is Laos, the small, communist nation that's long had ties with the North and now has growing links with the South.
"As strange as it sounds, Laos is kind of this remote battleground for inter-Korean politics or competition and diplomacy," says Sokeel Park, research director for Liberty in North Korea, a private South Korean organization that assists North Korean refugees.
Laos rarely receives international attention. But it's in the spotlight this week as it hosts a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which has drawn many heads of state, including President Obama.
To find evidence of Laos' longstanding ties to North Korea, look no further than the dining establishments. Laos hosts a North Korean-run restaurant in the heart of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. These North Korean restaurants are part of the regime's money-making operations, a way for Pyongyang to earn hard currency abroad, since sanctions have increasingly cut it off from the rest of the world.
"North Korea has had fairly close relations with Laos for several decades. They're both countries that [are] at least nominally socialist or communist states," Park says.
Park's work includes some dealings with Laos. It's one of the countries North Korean defectors sometimes pass through on their way to a final destination, like South Korea.
"Laos is one of the countries in Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees will go to out of China," he explains. The vast majority of defectors cross from North Korea into China, rather than attempting to cross the heavily guarded inter-Korean border.
A place for business, a route for defectors
So the North Korean-Laos relationship cuts both ways. It allows them to do business together, but it also means that North Korean defectors look at Laos as way to get out, and they know Laos is willing to look the other way.
And in recent months, South Korea has stepped up efforts to drive a wedge between Laos and North Korea.
North Korea's nuclear test and missile tests brought a new round of international sanctions this spring. It's also been an opportunity for South Korea to court Laos.
South Korea has been sending diplomats, increasing communication and signed a new military-to-military agreement. All in hopes Laos will get tougher on its North Korean partner.
"We think Laos and other countries previously friendly with North Korea have turned around considerably after the U.N. sanctions went into effect, and that they're now supporting South Korea's policies," says South Korea's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho June-hyuck.
But the ties with North Korea endure. Laos is believed to be one of the few places left where North Korea can send its labor to earn cash. North Korean diplomats continue to visit Laos. And North Korean still runs these Pyongyang restaurants, playing patriotic North Korean karaoke songs.
Haeryun Kang contributed to this story, from Seoul.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Obama is on his final trip to Asia as president. He's in Laos. The day before his arrival, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles, reminding the world of its nuclear program. These tests have left Pyongyang out in the cold with most of the international community but not with Laos. NPR's Elise Hu explains what binds the two countries.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Look no further than dining establishments to find countries connected to North Korea. Laos hosts a Pyongyang-run restaurant in the heart of its capital, Vientiane. These North Korean restaurants are part of the regime's money-making operations, a way to earn hard currency abroad since it's increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. Waitresses in knee-length red dresses serve common Korean dishes like jajangmyeon and bibimbap, and they offer us kimchi.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pau cai, Kimchi?
HU: The servers - all women - don't say much, nor do they even want attention. The windows are blacked out from the outside, but that this restaurant is open at all is evidence that Laos still allows North Korea to conduct its business here. The food isn't bad, and it's part of an ongoing relationship with Pyongyang.
SOKEEL PARK: North Korea has had fairly close relations with Laos for several decades. Of course, you know, they're both countries of the Non-Aligned Movement and, you know, at least nominally socialist or communist states.
HU: Sokeel Park is research director at Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit which helps North Korean refugees which sometimes pass through Laos before they can get to a final destination, like South Korea.
PARK: Laos is one of the countries in Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees will go to out of China and then potentially go into yet another country in Southeast Asia beyond that as well. But there's different routes that North Korean refugees use through multiple countries in Southeast Asia.
HU: Which tells you that despite its decades-long alliance with North Korea, Laos quietly works against the North, too, by looking the other way when it's used as a route for refugees to defect.
PARK: As strange as it sounds, Laos is kind of this remote battleground for inter-Korean politics or competition and diplomacy.
HU: South Korea is stepping up efforts to break up the ties between Laos and the North. Since the adoption of a new round of sanctions on North Korea this year, Seoul has been courting Laos, sending diplomats, increasing communication and signing a new military-to-military agreement, all in hopes Laos will get tougher on its Pyongyang partners. South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck sounds confident about how it's going.
CHO JUNE-HYUCK: (Through interpreter) We think Laos and other countries previously friendly with North Korea have turned around considerably after U.N. sanctions went into effect and that they're now supporting South Korea's policies.
HU: But the ties with North Korea endure. Laos is believed to be one of the few places left where North Korea can send its labor to earn cash. North Korean diplomats continue to visit here with delegations, and as it's clear, the North still runs these Pyongyang restaurants, playing patriotic North Korean karaoke songs, that is unless international pressure rises even more. Elise Hu, NPR News, Vientiane, Laos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.