The Korea Herald


Lawyers’ group calls for investigation into alleged defection of NK restaurant workers

By Kim So-hyun

Published : May 14, 2018 - 18:00

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A group of liberal lawyers filed a complaint with the prosecution on Monday against a spy chief and a unification minister during the Park Geun-hye administration over allegations that Seoul’s spy agency made 12 North Korean restaurant workers defect to the South – some of them against their will -- in 2016.

Lawyers for a Democratic Society, also known as Minbyeon, lodged the complaint with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, calling for an investigation into ex-National Intelligence Service Director Lee Byung-ho, ex-Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo and an NIS official in charge of foreign intelligence surnamed Chung.

In its complaint, Minbyeon said that the 12 North Korean restaurant workers were forced to come to South Korea against their will and that the mass defection was used during the parliamentary elections. It also alleged that the workers were detained at the North Korean Refugee Protection Center run by the NIS and denied the right to meet with legal counsel. 

This photo, released by the Ministry of Unification on April 8, 2016, shows the group of North Korean restaurant workers coming into South Korea. (Yonhap) This photo, released by the Ministry of Unification on April 8, 2016, shows the group of North Korean restaurant workers coming into South Korea. (Yonhap)

Former President Park Geun-hye and Lee Byung-kee, presidential chief of staff at the time, and restaurant owner identified as Huh Kang-il were not included in the complaint, contrary to Minbyeon’s earlier statement that the three would be named in its complaint.

The lawyers’ group said that it will file additional complaints against Park and ex-presidential chief of staff Lee when criminal evidence against them becomes clearer. As for the omission of Huh in Monday‘s complaint, the group said that he was a public interest informant.

Huh and 12 women who worked at a North Korean restaurant in China defected to the South in April 2016. Pyongyang has demanded their repatriation, accusing the NIS of kidnapping them for political purposes.

Suspicions have persisted that the NIS may have orchestrated their defection, which the Seoul government announced just days before the parliamentary elections in 2016.

Last week, a cable television network aired an interview of Huh, in which he said he had initially planned to defect with his wife, but was instructed by the NIS to bring his staff with him.

Huh said he had worked as an informant for the NIS for about a year, and decided to defect out of fear of getting caught by the North’s authorities.

JTBC also interviewed one of the restaurant workers, who said she had not known where she was headed until she arrived at the South Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

She said that Huh threatened to report them to the North’s authorities for watching South Korean drama series if they did not come with him.

Minbyeon said the government denied the group’s request for a face-to-face meeting with the defectors to verify the allegations, and repeated its position that they defected out of their own free will.

When Minbyeon filed an administrative lawsuit in August 2016, the court ruled that the NIS’ refusal was just.

By Kim So-hyun (