|Activists call for a thorough investigation into the North Korean restaurant workers' defection case that took place in April 2016, in a press conference held in front of Cheong Wa Dae, Monday. / Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han|
By Choi Ha-young
A two-year-old controversy around 12 North Korean restaurant workers, who fled a state-controlled restaurant in China, has been rekindled, following a media report in which three of them claimed they were "kidnapped."
In the news report aired Thursday by cable channel JTBC, four of the "defectors" said they never intended to come to Seoul in April 2016. "The restaurant manager surnamed Huh said the restaurant would move to another area. I figured out we were heading for South Korea, once we arrived at the South Korean embassy in Malaysia," she was quoted as saying.
Huh verified their remarks, saying South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) orchestrated the group defection. "An NIS agent lured me, saying then-President Park Geun-hye was waiting for me. He said a post in the NIS was confirmed for me, but the promise was never fulfilled," Huh said.
The Ministry of Unification said Monday it will look into the renewed controversy. "We are closely looking into the news report," ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said, declining to comment on their possible repatriation to the North. However, the ministry has never met the former restaurant workers, since the spy agency has had custody of them.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society (LDS) lodged a complaint on the same day, against those who allegedly plotted the incident ― former President Park, her presidential chief of staff, the former NIS head and former unification minister, as well as Huh. In a press conference Monday, the LDS called for a thorough fact-finding and prompt repatriation of the victims.
Lawyer Jang Kyung-wook, chief of an LDS taskforce regarding the issue, has raised suspicions the defection was fabricated. "The 13 people arrived in Seoul rapidly via a flight and their pictures were also revealed to the public, which was very exceptional," Jang said.
Usually, defection through a Southeast Asian country takes at least a few months. Also, defections are rarely made public, helping the defectors have a smooth settlement in the South.
However, the group defection case was made public on April 5, 2016, only a week before the general elections. At that time, speculation circulated that the conservative administration staged the incident, in a bid to rally conservative voters. In the divided nation under the threat of the totalitarian regime, people tend to vote conservative in the face of the "North Korean factor."
The case was widely cited by conservative groups as a signal of the regime's looming collapse. However, progressive newspapers and lawyers refuted the analysis, raising suspicions it was fabricated.
Interviews of the restaurant workers' parents in the North amplified the ideological confrontation. North Korean state-run media framed it as a "humanitarian issue," calling for their repatriation as a condition for resumption of inter-Korean humanitarian cooperation including reunions of divided families.
Regarding the increasing calls for possible repatriation of the restaurant workers, another defector said she fears forced repatriation to the North. "I would never go back to the North voluntarily. In such a case, please rescue me," defector Kim Tae-hee posted on social media. The Ministry of Unification, however, refuted the spreading rumors about repatriation in a press release Saturday.