The ongoing tussle between the two Koreas over 12 waitresses from North Korea who defected to the South spilled into a courtroom in Seoul on Tuesday, where human rights lawyers accused the authorities in the South of unlawfully detaining them.
The 12 women, together with their male manager, flew to Seoul, the South Korean capital, in April after leaving a North Korean government-run restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo. South Korea welcomed the women and described them as having defected of their own free will after growing fed up with their totalitarian government.
North Korea immediately accused the South’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, of kidnapping the women. It has since arranged for their parents to give interviews with the Western news media, during which they have demanded that South Korea allow them to meet with their daughters to learn their true intentions. The South has dismissed the demands as propaganda.
The inter-Korean standoff took an unexpected turn recently, when a South Korean human rights group, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, asked a court in Seoul to release the women from a tightly guarded government facility south of the city where they have been kept since their arrival, so they could speak for themselves. The group accused the National Intelligence Service of blocking the women’s access to legal services and their right to speak freely.
The South Korean government has denied the lawyers access to the women, saying that the defectors do not want their services. It has also said that if the women appeared in court and testified that they abandoned North Korea of their own accord, that would prompt the North to persecute their relatives in retaliation.
By law, the National Intelligence Service can keep North Koreans who flee to the South at a secluded facility outside Seoul for as long as six months for debriefing and to ferret out spies.
[New York Times]