Some of the 12 North Korean restaurant workers who came to South Korea in 2016 were not aware that they were being brought to the ROK, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK said on Tuesday.
Speaking at a press conference in Seoul following an over-week-long visit to the South, Tomas Ojea Quintana said he had in recent days conducted interviews with some – but not all – of the women the ROK claimed voluntarily defected two years ago and found “shortcomings.”
“From the information I received from some of them, they were taken to the Republic of Korea without knowing that they were coming here,” Ojea Quintana told press, while reiterating that he had not interviewed all 12 members of the group during his stay.
“I did not have access to all of them… but those that did talk to me it is clear there were some shortcomings in regard to how they were brought to South Korea,” he continued, adding that “they were subject to some kind of deceit in regard to where they were going.”
Tuesday’s comments are not the first time that the UN human rights envoy has raised questions about the case: in a speech in Seoul last year, he described “inconsistencies” in the South Korean government’s narrative of the high-profile incident.
Those reports featured, among other allegations, interviews with the manager of the restaurant Heo Kang-il, who claimed he had been coerced by the ROK’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) into forcibly bringing his colleagues to the South.
North Korean media in the aftermath of that report called on Seoul to “immediately” repatriate the women.
Ojea Quintana on Tuesday said the South Korean government must carry out a “thorough and independent investigation” into the case and to “hold to account those responsible for this incident.”
When asked by NK News whether he believed they should be returned to North Korea should an investigation find they came to the South against their will, the UN human rights envoy stressed it was up to the women to decide.
“It is the decision of these women whether or not to pursue a return to the DPR Korea,” he said. “As long as they do not proceed in this regard, we should respect their decision without any other interference.”
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.
The DPRK government previously insisted that the resumption of reunions of families separated by the Korean War would be conditional on their return – a demand it appeared to have dropped following the April agreement by Seoul and Pyongyang to hold the meetings in August.
The South’s unification ministry in May said its representatives had been unable to speak directly to the 12 women, though later in the month it announced that a meeting between one of the workers and manager Heo had taken place in April.
Tuesday’s press conference also saw the UN envoy stress the need for the issue of human rights to play a greater role in ongoing inter-Korean and DPRK-U.S. dialogue.
He, in particular, called on the South Korean government to raise the issue in further talks with North Korean counterparts and expressed concerns that the role of human rights activists was being sidelined as talks progressed.
“Some human rights NGOs are disappointed about the fact that human rights is being put aside in the negotiations,” Ojea Quintana said, adding that many were concerned that “the space for their cause seems to be narrowing.”
“That’s an environment that does not help progress on inter-Korean relations,” he continued. “It is the responsibility of the government of the Republic of Korea to change that trend and hold consultations with civil society, with the people, and to open up the participation of all stakeholders in these negotiations.”
Part of the purpose of this week’s visit to the ROK, he added, would be to “help the… government to develop a strategy to include the human rights dimension into the peace process.”
And while Ojea Quintana said he believed that Pyongyang had taken “positive steps” on human rights and humanitarian issues – namely through the release of American prisoners and the agreement to hold family reunions – the situation remained poor.
He also expressed concerns about the continued detention of several South Koreans in the North – an issue reportedly raised by ROK President Moon Jae-in during his April meeting with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
“I have not received further information from the ROK authorities about these detainees,” Ojea Quintana said. “What I hope is that these individuals are not subject to negotiations… the DPR Korea must release them.”
Six South Korean citizens have confirmed to be currently detained in the North, having all been accused by DPRK authorities of espionage and many serving compulsory labor sentences.
The UN envoy on Tuesday also, however, made reference to an additional detainee “from one media group” – likely a reference to as-yet-unconfirmed reports that a defector journalist from the Seoul-based Daily NK was abducted by the North last May.
Featured Image: Screengrab, Minjok Tongshin video
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