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UN envoy warns Koreas against ‘politicizing’ defectors

With unabated controversy over the defection of 12 North Korean restaurant workers, a UN rights envoy on Friday said the two Koreas should not “politicize” the issue and focus on fulfilling the needs of the women and their families.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said he has confirmed the 12 women were living freely here, though there were “inconsistencies” in accounts on their escape.

Pyongyang claims that they were abducted by South Korean operatives in China and has demanded their return as a precondition for a new round of reunions of separated families. 

Tomas Ojea Quintana (Yonhap)
Tomas Ojea Quintana (Yonhap)

“Whereas I am pleased to learn that these women are safe and not held in detention, I see inconsistencies in the narrative concerning their cases, and will be following up with the concerned governments,” he said at a news conference in Seoul.

“Here let me urge the two Koreas to avoid politicizing the situation of these women and strictly focus on their interests, protection needs and the needs of their families.”

Quintana was here on his second, five-day mission to gather information on the communist state’s human rights situation through field trips and meetings with government officials, lawmakers, private experts and defectors here.

The Argentine lawyer, who previously served as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, took up the post in March 2016. He is scheduled to submit a report on North Korea to the General Assembly in October.

Since their arrival in April 2016, the rare group runaway of the restaurant servers has been a source of debate, chiefly over whether they had come of their own free will and what role Seoul played in the process. A group of activists has filed a related lawsuit at a Seoul court.

Quintana said he spotted a discrepancy in the narrative during talks with a “wide range of interlocutors” but declined to elaborate further, pledging further fact-finding efforts.

Pyongyang’s own human rights research institute reiterated the abduction assertion in a state media interview on Friday, arguing Quintana should rather probe South Korea’s rights abuses and hold it accountable.

The envoy said rampant rights violations continue, such as arbitrary detention, human trafficking and enforced disappearances within the isolated country. The tragic fate of Otto Warmbier, a US student who died shortly after his release from the North, was a “reminder to all of us of the dire consequences of the lack of access to consular and legal counsel for those in detention,” he said. 

Tomas Ojea Quintana (Yonhap)
Tomas Ojea Quintana (Yonhap)

Criticizing China’s sustained repatriation of North Korean defectors despite risks of reprisals, Quintana urged “special protection” for those who transit through Chinese territory.

He welcomed the Moon Jae-in government’s initiative to revive communication and family reunions via its recent dialogue offer, calling for the Kim Jong-un regime to respond positively.

“This is a reassuring step forward to lower tensions that have built up between the two Koreas over the past months,” Quintana said.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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