The Korea Herald

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Unification Ministry reiterates no coercion in defection of NK restaurant workers

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : July 30, 2018 - 16:14

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South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Monday reaffirmed its position that the 12 North Korean restaurant workers who came to the South in 2016 defected of their own volition.

The statement came a day after the National Human Rights Commission, the country’s human rights watchdog, said it plans to launch an investigation into claims that the 12 women were abducted by the South’s National Intelligence Service, without knowledge of their destination.

“Our stance on the matter remains unchanged,” Lee Eugene, deputy spokesperson at the ministry, told reporters during a regular press briefing. “Our ministry has been cooperating with the human rights commission.”
 
Twelve North Korean restaurant workers and their manager arrive at Incheon International Airport on April 8, 2016. (Yonhap) Twelve North Korean restaurant workers and their manager arrive at Incheon International Airport on April 8, 2016. (Yonhap)

The commission seeks to look into whether the defection was carried out on the workers’ own free will, whether there was illegal intervention by South Korean authorities and the appropriateness of the Seoul government’s move to publicize the 2016 defection a day after their arrival.

The narrative surrounding the defection took a sharp turn in May when the manager, Huh Gang-il, who arrived with the women, told local cable broadcaster JTBC in May that he was forced by Seoul’s spy agency to cooperate with its plan to bring them to the South. Huh added in a follow-up interview that the NIS threatened to blow his cover to North Korean authorities if he refused to cooperate, after working as an NIS informant for a year. Huh and the women were employees at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China at the time.

Controversy was further fueled when Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said on July 10 that there were “some shortcomings in regards to how they were brought to South Korea,” and they had no knowledge of where they were heading at the time, after interviewing some of the defectors in Seoul

However, views remain divided. Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, referring to Quintana’s statement, told Radio Free Asia that the workers could have lied to protect family members back home who could be subject to harsh punishment, even the death penalty.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers at the National Assembly last week that while ministry officials interviewed two of the defectors, the women were trying to avoid contact with the government, possibly to protect their families in the North.

The prosecution has also started a probe into the allegations since June, after Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyun, filed a complaint against former senior officials suspected of orchestrating the defection.

In line with a fresh string of allegations, Pyongyang has ramped up its call for repatriation of the workers, saying that the South’s refusal to send back the group could create obstacles for ties between the divided Koreas.

By Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)