Since their arrival in early 2016, the purported mass defection of 13 North Korean restaurant workers to South Korea has caused controversy among those watching inter-Korean relations.
Abnormalities surrounding the way the former Park Geun-hye government first handled the case created the impression of political interference from the outset.
In particular, that the news was released just days before a general election – and that protocol was ignored so a photo of the defectors could be immediately distributed to media – raised major questions for some.
That, in turn, led to the South Korean Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun) group requesting access to the defectors shortly after their arrival, ostensibly to verify their motivations amid North Korean state media claims of them being kidnapped from their restaurant in China.
Despite a prolonged effort by Minbyun to get access to the workers, however, the legal group was unsuccessful at directly connecting with them at all during 2016 and 2017.
The issue reemerged during the early months of the Moon Jae-in presidency last year, when North Korea insisted that reunions of families separated by the Korean War would not take place until the women were returned.
But while the issue had mostly dropped off the news radar by early 2018, the manager of the restaurant workers, Heo Kang-il, unexpectedly told South Korean broadcaster JTBC that he and the female workers had been duped into going to the ROK against their will.
Then, on Sunday, he told state broadcaster Yonhap how the South Korean spy service had lured him and the workers to Seoul, even blackmailing them with threats of reporting them to North Korean authorities in the event of non-cooperation.
And on Tuesday that report was followed with sensational claims, also carried by Yonhap, stating that the South Korean Defense Intelligence Command had “masterminded the controversial defection” in cooperation with the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
Given Pyongyang’s long insistence that the issue be resolved before inter-Korean family reunions can take place, scheduled for August 15, the timing of the restaurant workers’ sudden media interviews in May and July this year is, therefore, particularly notable.
To better understand what’s going on, NK News spoke with a range of experts in South Korea and the United States, the following of whom replied ahead of deadline:
- Go Myong-Hyun (Research Fellow, Asan Institute, Seoul)
- Greg Scarlatiou (Executive Director, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea)
- Jang Kyung-wook (Task force head lawyer, Minbyun)
- Ambassador Robert King (Former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues)
- Scott Stevens (Communications Director, Transitional Justice Working Group)
1. What do you find most difficult to understand or unusual about this case and why?
Improving North-South relations does not seem to be a reason for this issue to re-emerge now, unless its revival was engineered by the North as a way to embarrass the South for its own reasons.
Conservatives lost the last presidential election, so there is little benefit for them to bring up the matter, and I don’t see a reason for progressives to bring this issue forward.
Go Myong-Hyun: The unusual nature of this case stems from the fact it involved a mass defection by North Korean overseas restaurant workers. Although waiting tables may sound like a low pay grade job, it is a different story if it involves the North Korean waitresses.
These workers have been carefully vetted and trained by the regime before being posted to their jobs overseas and usually come from the most loyal segment of North Korean society. They are required to watch and report on each other, which lowers the chance of group defection.
As the result, the defection of North Korean waitresses in the last several years was almost always an individual one, although it was becoming increasingly frequent.
For this reason the suspicion that not all 12 waitresses knew that they defecting to the South is eminently reasonable, while the claim that all of them were tricked into defecting is clearly preposterous.
Another unusual nature of this case is that the North Korean regime did not punish the families of the defectors, which turned out to be an effective move that buttressed its claim that the waitresses had been abducted.
Both the Park and Moon governments have made it clear this was a defection (see the MOU statement a few days ago).
There are already 32,000 defectors in the ROK.
The ROK doesn’t need to kidnap North Koreans.
There were already former North Korean waitresses in the ROK. I interviewed many of them. So, no need to kidnap anyone.
From that point forward, journalists and civil society lawyer groups, some of whom maintain lines of communication with Pyongyang, have tracked down the workers to request interviews and offer legal representation.
This has planted a spotlight on the intentions of the workers, who must consider the implications of their public statements on their loved ones back home.
If they publicly admit having knowingly defected, or indicate their desire to stay in South Korea, their loved ones in North Korea will face a lifetime of increased surveillance at the least, and possibly much more grave consequences.
Jang Kyung-wook: The case is considerably different considering the process of checking identification and entering South Korea. Without the intervention of the government agency, it couldn’t be possible that 12 people possessed the passport, traveled swiftly and entered the South by plane via the third country within two days. If there is a broker, people usually defect via the overland route and it takes a long time.
What was really unusual is that the photo of them was released to media, one day after their arrival in the South. I believe there was a political goal as the Park administration said the defection of the effect of sanctions on the North and the evidence of the agitation of the upper-class when making the announcement before the general election.
The Ministry of Unification also didn’t play its role and attempt to meet them: the unification ministry in charge of supporting settlement and ought to support them.
2. Given recent media claims by the restaurant manager and several female workers, what steps should South Korean authorities take to resolve the growing controversy surrounding this case, in your opinion?
Go Myong-Hyun: The South Korean government is caught in a bind here. Even if some defectors recanted their initial claim of voluntary defection, it would be a bad decision to allow them to return to the North, as such a move will clearly tell the regime those who remain behind had indeed defected voluntarily. The regime will then be able to sort the family members in the North and condemn those whose daughters refused to return.
Although the South Korean government is in a difficult position right now, it should contain the controversy by reaffirming the basic facts of the case.
It should first state that all defectors, even those who gave media interviews with claims that they had been tricked into defecting, had explicitly expressed their intention to stay when they first arrived in the South.
Second, the government should remind international and domestic public opinion that the defectors are now South Korean nationals with a full set of rights, implying they can make the right choice for themselves, including leaving South Korea if they want.
Ambassador Robert King: If any of the waitresses or the manager wish to return to the North, presumably they could do so.
It would be embarrassing for intelligence officials in the South, but at the present time it would presumably encourage North-South relations.
Because of the way in which the North Korean government treats family members of those who have defected to the South, the issue may have been raised by participants in order to give cover to family members of the waitresses and the manager who are still living in the North.
Claiming (even if it is false) that the defection was not voluntary might make it easier for the families in the North.
From what we know, DPRK officials still severely punish defectors’ family members in the North, and they punish those who defect but later change their minds and return to the North.
In retrospect, the enthusiastic flourish of publicity given the defection of the 13 two years ago was a seriously flawed decision.
The principle follows that states are obligated to protect individuals against return to a country where that person has reason to fear persecution.
The waitresses have ROK passports. If they want to go back, all they need to do is travel to China and cross the border into the DPRK.
At least one of the waitresses has already traveled abroad. The flaunt that the ROK government is holding them hostage is an absolute sham.
Jang Kyung-wook: I think the Moon administration should come down to the bedrock by establishing an independent inquiry, which is the most urgent. I think victims believe their issue will be resolved only when the organization officially judge if it’s crime or not, and we can get to know what the victims want in the process.
The victims don’t know well why they entered the South, but there has been the process of some sharing the story that there was a mastermind in the case apart from the restaurant manager. But I believe the foremost important issue before meeting their demands, including compensation, is that the government will investigate the case and take the responsible actions.
3. What are the most likely impacts on emerging inter-Korean relations should this issue remain unresolved?
Scott Stevens: This issue will be used to draw attention away from the abductions and disappearances conducted by North Korea of nationals from South Korea, Japan, the United States, China, Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Romania.
Those abducted and disappeared include civilians who were forcibly separated through displacement during the Korean War, POWs, and persons who were abducted by North Korean agents on foreign territory, particularly in Japan and the ROK. Added to these victims of enforced disappearance are also those inside North Korea who were taken and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
It fully understands that the South is in a bind, and will exploit the issue whenever domestic South Korean opinion presses the government to bring up the issue of human rights as it expands the inter-Korean dialogue.
The regime won’t make this issue completely dominate the inter-Korean relationship, only to use it as an instrument to shape dialogue to its favor.
Raising the issue and encouraging it to fester has no benefit for the South. For the North, it is a propaganda message to use to warn its own people to be cautious toward Southerners, even if relations improve.
It could also be an issue to embarrass the South and encourage concessions from Seoul in the discussions.
If the North decides to slow down or scuttle the emerging détente, this issue could be used as an excuse (though it would not be the real reason).
Special Rapporteur on the DPRK Tomás Ojea Quintana, has been addressing a lot of issues and has been doing a great job. Pity media are only focusing only on his statements about the waitresses.
Jang Kyung-wook: The inter-Korean and the North-U.S. summits took place and the atmosphere for faithful implementation of the agreements has been created.
And the two Kores agreed to endeavor to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation. Both sides shared the view to discussing humanitarian issues urgently and earnestly with the direction of improving inter-Korean relations and benefits.
If this issue isn’t resolved, I think the speed of the development will be slow down. I think the problem solving can be the stepping stone for the improvement of the South-North relations and an accelerator for reconciliation in the sense that both can settle the unfortunate history.
Dagyum Ji contributed to this report
Edited by Oliver Hotham