The latest developments surrounding a group of 13 North Koreans who came to the South in 2016 after working at a restaurant in China show that the legacy of the Cold War still persists on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean officials insist that the 13 -- one male manager and 12 young women who worked at a North Korean restaurant in China’s Zhejiang province -- came to the South “on their own free will.”
But some of the former restaurant workers, including the manager, have reportedly made contradicting testimonies recently, adding weight to the suspicion that their defection was the result of a Cold War-era intelligence operation by South Korean agents.
At the peak of the Cold War, the two Koreas engaged in intense propaganda, which included the use of defectors from the other side. At the time, it was usual for the two Koreas to organize news conferences involving defectors during which they criticized their birth country and praised their new home country.
Such campaigns have declined considerably in recent years, as the tide turned in favor of the affluent, democratic South, with hordes of North Koreans risking their lives to run away from the poor, repressive North and resettle in the South.
So far, more than 30,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South, though the number has been steadily decreasing in recent years, from the peak of 2,914 in 2009 to 1,418 in 2016 and 1,044 in 2017.
The case of the former restaurant workers, however, indicates that South Korean intelligence agents might have been engaged in some kind of Cold War-style operation aimed at luring North Koreans to the South for the sake of publicity.
The latest testimony came from the former restaurant manager, Ho Kang-il, who had a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency. He argues that agents of the National Intelligence Service lured his group with the promise of South Korean citizenship and the proprietorship of a restaurant in a Southeast Asian country.
Ho, who admitted that he cooperated with NIS agents, said that the agents promised that he and the 12 workers would be entrusted to run the restaurant. He added that the South Korean agents threatened to inform North Korean authorities about his relationship with the NIS unless he cooperated with the defection.
You should be careful when listening to someone who works as a cooperator or informant for a spy agency, but some of Ho’s testimonies are consistent and convincing.
Some of his key points were backed up by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea who visited Seoul recently.
After interviewing some of the former restaurant workers, Tomas Ojea Quintana said there had been some “shortcomings” with regards to how they were brought to South Korea. “From the information I received from some of them, they were taken to the Republic of Korea without knowing they were coming here,” he said.
Some workers also told the broadcaster JTBC in May that they did not know they were headed to Seoul until they were brought to the South Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They said Ho threatened those who hesitated before entering the embassy compound, saying he would report to North Korean authorities that they had viewed South Korean television broadcasts while working in China.
Given the situation, what is urgent -- as the UN rapporteur said -- is to have a thorough and independent investigation into the case. If South Korean agents are found to have orchestrated the defection, there is no reason whatsoever not to respect the wishes of those who want to go back to the North.
The case should remind everyone that spy operations targeting civilians are practices that the two Koreas should abandon for good.