Featured Image: Ministry of Unification
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Dagyum Ji and Oliver Hotham
Dagyum Ji is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. Oliver Hotham is Managing Editor of NK News.
The South Korean government on Friday said it is seeking to ascertain the truth behind local media reports that 12 North Korean restaurant workers who arrived in the ROK in 2016 were brought against their will.
In comments made during a regular press briefing, Ministry of Unification (MOU) spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun was asked to comment on a report by South Korea’s left-leaning JTBC network broadcast on Thursday.
That report featured an interview with the manager of the restaurant where the women worked – who came to South Korea with them – claiming that they had been brought to the ROK against their will.
The manager claimed that while only he and his wife had planned to defect, the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) had asked him to bring the 12 women with him.
JTBC also interviewed several women claiming to have been in the group which came to the South, who said they had been unaware that they were defecting until they reached the ROK embassy in Malaysia.
“There are some media reports with regard to the mass defection of [restaurant] workers last night,” MOU spokesperson Baik said. “…some workers and the manager made the new claims on the details of the entrance and free will.”
“Therefore, I’d like to say that it is necessary to confirm the facts.”
The South Korean government has since the news of the reported defection first broke insisted that the 12 women and their male companion defected of their own free will.
The North Koreans all reportedly worked at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in Ningbo, China.
The 12 women have since received special admission into universities in the South, are living under NIS protection, and are yet to make any public statements regarding their arrival in the ROK.
Requests by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun) group to meet the women on behalf of their families in the North have been rejected.
Friday saw the unification ministry say that they have been unable to speak directly to the 12 women.
“We’ve tried to have a face-to-face talk several times regarding the mass defection of the workers,” Baik said. “But they didn’t want the meeting, so there is a limitation in figuring out the facts.”
Baik said the original case had been the responsibility of the NIS.
“With regard to the mass defection, the National Intelligence Service made the decision based on North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act, and it notified [the situation] to the Ministry of Unification,” he said.
The North Korean government and the families of the women have repeatedly claimed that the women were forced to come to the South against their will and called for their repatriation.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Tomas Ojea Quintana during a visit last year to Seoul told press he believed there were “inconsistencies” in the case.
Thursday’s JTBC report also saw the purported manager claim that NIS agents that threatened to report him to North Korean secret police should he not bring the 12 women with him.
The man then said he had subsequently threated to report the women to DPRK secret police for watching South Korean movies and soap operas should they not defect.
“President Park Geun-hye is waiting for you. Let’s work at the National Intelligence Service together receiving the Order of Military Merit,” one agent is reported to have told him.
JTBC reported it is in possession of a USB stick given to them by the alleged manager which proves his contact with the NIS.
“We are closely reviewing the content of the broadcast,” MOU spokesperson Baik told press on Friday. “This is all that I am able to share now.”
The timing of the comments is notable: amid numerous attempts last year by the then-newly elected Moon administration to facilitate reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the DPRK stated that any meetings would be contingent on the repatriation of the 12 women.
“Until this problem is solved, any humanitarian cooperation projects, including family reunions… can never be realized,” an article in the outer-track DPRK Today outlet stated.
Last month’s Panmunjom Declaration – signed following a historic meeting between DPRK leader Kim Jong Un ROK President – suggested that the North had reversed its position, however.
The agreement included, among other things, a pledge that the two Koreas would hold a reunion event on August 15: Korea’s Liberation Day, in what appeared to be a minor victory for the Moon administration.
Numerous South Korean media reports have alleged NIS involvement in the defection in the years since their coming to the ROK, though Friday represents the first time Seoul has quite so publicly lent credence to the claims.
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification