A group of North Korean waitresses who “defected” to Seoul in 2016 were actually abducted by South Korea, a fact-finding team of international lawyers has concluded after a visit to Pyongyang.
The case has long been controversial, with Pyongyang saying the 12 women were kidnapped from a North Korean state-run restaurant in China, while Seoul insists they defected of their own free will.
During their six-day stay in the North Korean capital, which ended September 5, the lawyers said they spoke to seven former waitresses who claimed they managed to escape, while their colleagues were tricked into coming to Seoul.
The seven North Korean women said they escaped – and eventually return to the North – after their team leader overheard a conversation between the restaurant’s manager and a representative of the South Korean intelligence service.
While the seven escaped, 12 other waitresses had already left without knowing they were being taken to South Korea, the joint fact-finding committee of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers said in a statement.
The 12 women were “taken away by deception … against their will, separated from their families and country”, it said after taking evidence from their seven colleagues. “This constitutes the criminal offense of abduction.”
In a bombshell revelation last year, the manager of the restaurant where the waitresses worked said he had lied to them about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South. Heo Gang-il told the South’s JTBC television that he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.
At a briefing in Pyongyang, one of the lawyers, Niloufer Bhagwat, vice president of the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific, slammed the Seoul government for its handling of the case.
The team of lawyers said they had received “full cooperation” from the North but were not allowed to meet the 12 North Korean women who are currently in the South. “The young women … are still being monitored by the South Korean intelligence service and the national police agency,” she said.