13 North Korean defectors released
SOUTH Korea said that its intelligence service had finished investigating 13 North Korean restaurant workers whose joint defection triggered accusations from Pyongyang that they were kidnapped.
A Unification Ministry official said the dozen waitresses and their manager had been “released into society” last week.
They had all been working at a North Korea-themed restaurant in China. Their arrival in South Korea in April made headlines as the largest group defection in years.
While Seoul said they fled voluntarily, Pyongyang claimed they were kidnapped by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and waged a vocal campaign through its state media for their immediate return.
For all North Korean defectors, life in the South begins with intensive NIS interrogation that can last for months and is aimed at weeding out possible spies.
They are then sent to a resettlement centre for three months’ training, after which they are free to start new lives in South Korean society.
Arguing that the high-profile nature of the restaurant workers’ case made them unusually vulnerable, the NIS had announced in June that they would remain in protective custody rather than being sent to the centre.
Now that they have been released, the unification ministry said it would provide no further details of their situation “for safety and security reasons”.
“They did not want to be interviewed or make public their whereabouts,” the ministry official said.
The dispute over the defectors has fanned inter-Korean tensions that have been running high since the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.
Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.
But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered “loyal” to the regime.
Pyongyang runs a number of North Korean restaurants abroad but a small number of staff have defected to the South.