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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The mother of one of the 12 North Korean restaurant workers reported to have defected in 2016 has called on South Korea to “immediately” repatriate her daughter.
In a statement which follows a recent investigation into the case by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), DPRK-run online outlet Meari carried a letter by Ji Chun Ae, reportedly the mother of defector Ri Ji Ye.
While the NHRCK’s decision cleared Seoul of direct involvement in bringing the 12 women to South Korea, it did not completely exonerate ROK authorities of wrongdoing.
In particular, the watchdog condemned the then-Park Geun-hye administration’s decision to make news of the mass defection public.
In her letter this week, Ji Chun Ae said she had learned that the NHRCK had “conceded that our daughters were taken to South Korea by threats and coercion… not by their own will.”
“I can hardly sleep these days with simmering rage and the hope that our daughter Ji Ye will now able to return home,” she wrote.
Many family members of the young women, Ji continued, “suffer from various diseases including somatization disorder and insomnia and there are some who passed away.”
“Now that the South Korean authorities have admitted to the mass abduction, it is right to return our daughters to the bosom of their parents and the motherland,” she said.
“Criminals, including Park Geun-hye, who dragged our daughters to South Korea for their impure political purposes must be severely punished.”
There is “no reason for the South Korean authorities to hold our daughters in South Korea making unjustified excuses such as ‘settlement’ or ‘personal security,'” Ji said.
“I am past the age of 60, but I have not yet had my 60th birthday banquet because of my daughter, who has not yet returned,” the letter continued.
“Send our daughter back immediately so that I can have my 60th birthday party receiving a glass which our Ji Ye pours for me.”
Ji also notably echoed previous DPRK media claims tying the repatriation of the restaurant workers to reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
“How can the South Korean authorities bring up ‘humanitarianism,’ and the reunion of separated families and relatives as they divide children and parents and create new separated families?” she said.
Lee Sang-min, a spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU), on Wednesday declined to directly comment on the statement.
This month’s NHRCK report has proven controversial.
South Korea’s Lawyers for a Democratic Society, known as Minbyun, last week said it would challenge the committee’s findings, which it said had been delayed for political reasons.
Minbyun first submitted a petition urging the NHRCK to investigate the case in February 2018, with the findings of the watchdog’s investigation only emerging 18 months later.
A joint fact-finding committee from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) and the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific (COLAP) has been conducting its own investigation, however.
The committee visited Pyongyang late last month, conducting face-to-face talks with the families of the restaurant workers and others concerned.
They also travelled to Seoul on a fact-finding mission in May and August.
The committee last week tentatively concluded that the delay in the release of NHRCK’s findings “may lead to the inference that the state agencies and officials have been extended impunity from any accountability.”
In an interim report, the committee also said that “this unconscionable delay was influenced by state policy,” urging the South Korean government to “urgently arrange a family reunion.”
The report also revealed that a journalist investigating the case had been asked to postpone the release of their interview with restaurant manager Heo Kang-il following “intervention at the highest level of government.”
Heo would in that interview claim that South Korean intelligence blackmailed him into tricking the women into defecting to the South.
“Four waitresses who participated in the program have confirmed that they did not come to South Korea voluntarily,” the interim report said.
The committee now plans to submit a final report to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council by the end of September.
UN officials have also previously raised questions about the case, with Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK Tomas Ojea Quintana repeatedly citing “shortcomings” in Seoul’s official account.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Screengrab, Minjok Tongshin