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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea on Friday dismissed attempts by the North Korean media to tie the controversial 2016 reported defection of 12 DPRK restaurant workers to long-stalled reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The comments, which came from the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU), follow a notable uptick in coverage by the externally-focused Uriminzokkiri outlet calling on Seoul to repatriate the 12 women, who Pyongyang claims were abducted.
The marked increase in coverage of the issue follows an investigation into the case by the Seoul-based National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK).
While that report did not completely exonerate the ROK government for its handling of the 2016 mass defection, it also ruled that the then-Park Geun-hye administration did not play a direct role in the women’s coming to the South.
Uriminzokkiri, which primarily targets South Korean audiences, on Friday urged Seoul to take action and return the women, claiming that they were abducted by the Park administration.
“Nothing has changed since the current authorities came to power… they are bent upon the evasion of responsibility,” it said, demanding information about the whereabouts of the women.
“The South Korean authorities are still deceiving internal and external public opinion by tritely repeating remarks that they cannot disclose personal information as [12 women] are in the process of ‘psychological stability’ and ‘social settlement,'” it added.
“The current South Korean authorities should not talk about the ‘pain of separated families’ while they forcibly detain our women and do not return them,” the article continued.
“They must clearly bear in mind that the more they act foolish, the more they will stir the anger of the entire nation.”
MOU deputy spokesperson Kim Eun-han in response on Friday rejected the comparison.
“North Korean defectors who have undergone the procedure of verifying their intent during their entry and separated families are a different pair of shoes,” Kim told a regular press briefing.
“I would like to say, once again, that it is the basic responsibility of the South and North Korean authorities to resolve the issue of families separated by the division.”
The government’s “basic position is to make the issue of separated families a top priority,” he added.
Wednesday also saw Uriminzokkiri warn that the mass defection issue would have a major impact on inter-Korean relations if the Moon Jae-in government did not take any action.
“If the South Korean authorities act foolishly to hush up the matter, it will cause serious consequences for resolving issues of inter-Korean relations including reunions of separated families and relatives.”
Video released by externally-focused Uriminzokkiri outlet this week
North Korean externally-focused online media Meari on Wednesday also highlighted the restaurant worker case, carrying a statement written by the mother of defector Ri Ji Ye.
Uriminzokkiri the following day released a video featuring a series of interviews between a joint fact-finding committee on the case with family members of the 12 defector women.
That committee — composed of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) and the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific (COLAP) — visited Pyongyang between August 31 and September 5.
In the video, COLAP’s Secretary-General Jun Sasamoto says the purported defections constitute “the criminal offense of abduction.”
The video, featured on the Uriminzokkiri website, shows several family members of the 12 North Korean defectors sobbing and expressing their anger.
The family members include the mothers of So Kyong A, Jon Ok Hyang, Han Haeng Bok, Ri Ji Ye, and Ryu Song Yong as well as the father of Pak Ok Pyol.
“The South Korean puppet regime plotted the despicable schemes to separate our daughters in the South forever,” the mother of Jon Ok Hyang says in the interview.
“They pressure our daughters mentally and physically, and I think this is a violation of human rights.”
In the video, the anchor calls on the South Korean government to make a “sincere apology for their crime and bring the conservative group which committed the hideous anti-human crime to the judge of history.”
They also “must send all 12 women citizens who were enticed and abducted back to the bosom of the motherland at the earliest possible time.”
This week’s coverage is not the first time Pyongyang has sought to draw a parallel between the two cases: ahead of reunions of separated families last year, DPRK media warned that the controversy over the restaurant workers could serve as a “barrier” for inter-Korean ties.
Although the two Koreas previously agreed to “give priority to resolving the issue of video reunions and exchange of video messages between the separated families” in last September’s Pyongyang Joint Declaration, no progress has been made to that end.
Both sides also agreed to “open a permanent facility” for reunions in the area of Mount Kumgang “at an early date.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Press Corps at Mt. Geumgang
South Korea on Friday dismissed attempts by the North Korean media to tie the controversial 2016 reported defection of 12 DPRK restaurant workers to long-stalled reunions of families separated by the Korean War.The comments, which came from the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU), follow a notable uptick in coverage by the