North Korea has demanded South Korea return a group of its citizens who defected while working at a restaurant in China last year as a precondition for reunions of families separated by the Korean War, in another move that casts a cloud over President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of a cross-border thaw.
Kim Yong-chol, a senior official in the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea told the AFP in Pyongyang that the South Korean government should repatriate the 12 former restaurant workers and another citizen named Kim Ryon-hui who requested to return to her homeland in 2015.
“At the moment another issue is more important and more urgent,” Kim said, saying the 13 people were “being detained by force in South Korea.”
“They should be returned immediately.” Kim added.
“Unless Kim Ryon-hui and 12 other female workers are returned immediately there can never be any kind of humanitarian cooperation. And this is our principled stand.”
This photo taken on June 2, 2017, shows members of a South Korean civic group calling on the government to expand civilian inter-Korean exchanges. (Yonhap)
The father of Ri Ji-ye, one of the 12, he said, “died with his eyes open and cursing the conservative elements who have detained his daughter.”
The escape of the 12 waitresses in their 20s in April 2016 gained international traction due chiefly to the mass defection and their highly clandestine journey from the Chinese city of Ningbo to Seoul. Since their release from custody in August, they have reportedly entered universities in Korea, but never made public appearances, living under strict government protection required for high-profile defectors.
Most defectors flee their homeland in pursuit of a freer, more prosperous life in the South. But Pyongyang has persistently made claims the 12 were kidnapped by Seoul’s spy agency and called for their return.
Kim Ryon-hui, a dressmaker, held a news conference in August 2015 to plead for her return, saying she had been deceived by a defector broker in China, and expressed her wish to return upon her landing here in September 2011.
But Seoul has virtually brushed off her request because Kim has already become a South Korean, and under the law all South Koreans are mandated to secure government approval to visit the North, with only the possibility for a temporary stay.
A Ministry of Unification official dismissed the North’s demand again, saying family reunions and defectors are separate issues. The government has already verified the 12 waitresses’ intentions to stay here and its position on the dressmaker’s return remains unchanged, the official added.
“The families were forcibly split by the two Koreas’ history and different systems, and it’s an issue that could not be solved if too much time passes,” the official told reporters on customary condition of anonymity, stressing that nearly 4,000 family members have died.
“We had given (Kim) our nationality through (official) procedures. She came here by her own, voluntary decision, but now says she’s changed her mind and wants to go back, that’s beyond the law.”
Pyongyang’s unusual linkage of the separated families and defector issues came days after the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and three minor opposition parties agreed to push for what would be a first round of family gatherings under Moon, in time for the Aug. 15 Liberation Day holiday, celebrated in both the North and South.
The prospects for the plan, however, remain bleak, given the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s skepticism, as well as the Kim Jong-un regime’s ongoing nuclear development and missile provocations. Despite the liberal president’s resolve to restart civilian humanitarian aid, the communist state recently rejected a proposal from a Seoul-based civic group.
“Kim Jong-un has eyes set on the 12 female defectors here, so he could use them as leverage and pressure on the new government here. It can be also viewed as a test for the Moon administration,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said.
“With North Korea’s current human rights issue at the center of global attention, Kim Ryon-hui can also be used as propaganda to magnify the South’s human rights issue as well.”
By Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com