Amid a mood for a thaw on the Korean Peninsula, complications surrounding the arrival of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in 2016 are emerging as an obstacle to inter-Korean ties.
Two years ago, when inter-Korean relations were icy, 12 female North Korean defectors made headlines as they arrived in Seoul wearing masks that covered their nose and mouth, and colorful jackets.
This file photo provided by the Ministry of Unification shows North Korean restaurant workers arriving in South Korea in April 2016. (Yonhap)
At the time, the South Korean government adamantly said they had defected of their own free will, while Pyongyang immediately said they had been kidnapped by Seoul’s spy agency.
The recent easing of border tensions has triggered a slight shift in the Seoul government’s stance on the issue and seemingly allowed the North to gain an upper hand in the matter.
North Korea’s Red Cross on Saturday reiterated its demand that South Korea send back the workers, saying such a move would prove Seoul’s willingness to improve relations.
The statement came a week after Seoul said it would look into the circumstances surrounding the women’s arrival, following a media report that suggested that their “defections” might have been involuntary.
It also comes on the heels of North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of a high-level meeting with the South -- allegedly due to a joint South Korea-US military drill -- and its threat to call off the planned summit between its leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump next month.
The statement by North Korea’s Red Cross poses a tricky problem for Seoul, which is hoping to revive the reunion of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War as soon as possible. Last year, North Korea set repatriation of the restaurant workers as a precondition for the cross-border Red Cross talks, which are used as a platform for hammering out details of the reunions.
Seoul has been noting the urgency of the resumption of the reunions due to family members’ advancing age. The reunion event was halted in 2015.
A recent report by local broadcaster JTBC further complicated the matter, with the network airing an interview of a former manager of a restaurant in China, who is believed to have led the North Korean women here. The manager said that he merely carried out an “escape plan” arranged by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and that the women were unaware of their destination.
Some of the women said on the same program that they were not fully aware of where they were headed until they arrived at the South Korean Embassy in Malaysia and expressed their wish to see their parents again.
“The groups’ parents officially gave us the right to represent them here, but the government just continues to tell us the group refuses to meet us face-to-face,” Kwon Jung-ho, a member of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyeon, told The Korea Herald.
“The women are focusing on their college education, according to the government, but too many details are veiled to find out what’s actually happening,” he added.
The Ministry of Unification, which oversees inter-Korean affairs, said that the report would be further looked into and verified. It added that it had attempted to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the defectors, but this was refused.
Asked if Seoul is willing to repatriate the former North Korean employees to the North, the spokesman avoided a direct reply, saying only that all things related to the TV report were being closely reviewed.
Meanwhile, the government’s vague response sparked confusion and fear among North Korean defectors in the South.
On Saturday, North Korean defectors gathered in front of the government complex in Seoul, protesting against Seoul’s decision to look into the case of the restaurant workers and demanding a guarantee of their personal security.
Park Sang-hak, a defector and activist, said that the defector population in the South is enraged over the government’s decision to look into the possibility that the group’s arrival here was involuntary and that they would not just “sit and watch” them “fall back into Kim Jong-un’s hands.”
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)