An attorney at the South Korean intelligence office on Thursday said all of the North Koreans who defected after working at a restaurant in China are all healthy, dismissing North Korean government’s argument that they were abducted and protesting with hunger strikes.
Park Young-sik, who serves at the North Korean refugees protection center under the National Intelligence Service (NIS) as a human rights defender, discussed the individual interviews she carried out with the 12 female defectors over the weekend after the Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun) requested that they be allowed to meet them.
North Korean media and defectors’ families in North Korea have argued that they were abducted by the NIS. There has been a rumor that the former restaurant workers have carried out a hunger strike and one of them starved to death.
“I can say clearly that all of the 13 defectors are all healthy, don’t have any problem,” Park, who has been in this position since April 2015, told the Hankyoreh on Thursday. “All of them said they would not accept Minbyun’s meeting request.”
Minbyun requested the meeting last week, citing the UN Human Rights Committee report which urged that the NIS shorten its investigation period and ensure free communication between examinees and lawyers.
The NIS declined the meeting on Monday. Minbyun sent a letter to the defectors after their rejection.
“If you arrived in South Korea not by your free will, or if you changed your mind after the arrival you have rights to go back to your home,” the letter reads, notifying examinees’ of their right to remain silent and to communicate with families in the North via correspondence.
Park emphasized that the defectors hope “to be forgotten” by the public.
“What’s going to happen for a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?” Park told the Chosun Ilbo on the same day.
Previously, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MoU) revealed their defection news, including the location of the restaurant, and claimed that financial pressure on the restaurant from the North Korean authorities following international sanctions were a reason for the defection.
This sudden announcement raised experts and activists’ doubts over political calculation, as defections are not customarily discussed publicly, especially before they’ve completed their time at Hanawon.
Park visits the center once a week. Experts have previously noted a lack of authority of the human rights protector in the center.
“It is important whether that person can serve as an attorney or not, and approach all information and each facility to provide support for the defectors,” Kim Ki-nam, who participated on the UN Human Rights Committee as a civil society member told NK News last year.
Lawyer Jang Kyeong-wook from Minbyun, who requested the meeting, was not sure about the level of trust between the defectors and the human rights advocate, considering past testimony by defectors.
“Defectors are exposed to negative information about Minbyun under the closed atmosphere of the center, only receiving filtered information,” Jang told NK News. “There should be open discussion and communication with outside lawyers, and we can’t totally ignore North Korean families interviews.”
Regarding these questions, the NIS press office suggested looking the past activities of the first human rights advocate Lee Sun-hee, such as establishing a mailbox to report human rights violations and providing individual legal counseling.
“The human rights advocate itself has autonomous authority,” the spokesperson told NK News.
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Featured Image: North Korean Restaurant in Shanghai by uritours on 2014-09-13 07:46:49