Friends and family of 12 female North Korean restaurant workers who recently arrived in Seoul used interviews with pro-Pyongyang media to call for their release and repatriation, two June 15 dated videos show.
The interviewees, filmed by the Tokyo-based Choson Sinbo in Pyongyang, said what South Korea described as a rare “mass defection” was instead an “abduction” of North Korean citizens, urging Seoul to return the women as soon as possible.
“The South Korean government asserts that our friends left on their free will but that is clearly a lie,” said Choe Rae Young in Korean, presented as a friend of one of the restaurant workers who arrived in Seoul this April.
“If indeed they were abducted, South Korea should have the decency to release them back to their families and to us,” she said in remarks which precedence suggests may have been scripted or spoken under coercion.
Two other friends in the same video alleged that the waitresses were being kept in “miserable” conditions in South Korea, questioning why authorities there were not allowing contact despite a formal request.
In another video Jon Kum Chol, father of one of the workers, described the “abduction” of the 12 waitresses as a “charade,” conducted by the South for political purposes.
And Ryu Man Bok – one of eight family members featured in that interview – said he had conducted an interview with CNN and spoken to ambassadors from foreign embassies in order to raise international attention on the issue.
Together, the two videos represent additional evidence that North Korea is unlikely to drop the case any time soon, especially given recently thwarted efforts by South Korea’s Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyun, to provide legal assistance to the workers.
As such, one human rights activist told NK News it was likely the Korean language material had been produced in order to target the defector community, both inside and outside South Korea.
“Every North Korean knows that it is not a good sign if the family is dragged in front of the camera,” said Joanna Hosaniak, Deputy Director General at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “Those North Koreans that are abroad will (now) think twice about whether to defect.”
Hosaniak added that the videos appeared to be part of “a strategy for (North Korea) to divert attention from what is happening inside the country, by making (outside) accusations”.
Normally, South Korea refrains from sharing details about defector arrivals, but in April the Ministry of Unification (MoU) told media that 12 female restaurant workers – accompanied by one male manager – had made a rare group defection from China.
While the MoU tried to keep their identities secret, South Korean media quickly identified the precise restaurant they came from in China, with North Korean media subsequently publicizing names and personal details of some of the workers.
As a result, questions have swirled about why South Korean authorities announced the case, with the MoU going as far as attributing their arrival to the impact of recently tightened sanctions against the North.
“Many South Korean people think this issue was announced in public for political interest, by the government,” said Bada Nam of the Seoul-based People for Successful Corean Reunification.
“When any North Korean defector entered South Korea, it has historically been kept secret,” Nam continued. “It was not (due to any) rule, but we all understand how it is dangerous for the defector’s family.”
Nam said that the consequence of publicizing their arrival was therefore damaging for all concerned.
“When we think about human rights, this case should not have been announced…North Korea will keep raising this issue and South Korea will not provide a clear answer.”
Since the arrival of the 13 restaurant staffers in April, reports have circulated in South Korean media of additional defections from another China-based North Korea restaurant and a factory in Dandong.
Main picture: Choson Sinbo
Additional Reporting: Kyung Lee
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