Government insists defectors were not lured

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Government insists defectors were not lured

The South Korean government reaffirmed on Wednesday that the 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South in 2016 did so on their own free will, and denied claims from a United Nations human rights special rapporteur that some were deceived about their final destination.

Baik Tae-hyun, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said during a regular news briefing that the workers arrived in South Korea voluntarily and that the government had nothing further to say about their defection.

The official said the government could not disclose certain details about their journey because the defectors did not want their motives revealed out of fear that their families might face retribution back home.

The defection of 12 North Korean women, mostly in their early to mid-20s, and their male manager has been a thorny issue between the two Koreas since the group left a North Korean government-run restaurant in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo in April 2016.

Seoul has consistently said they arrived on their own “free will,” but Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

JTBC, an affiliate cable channel of the Korea JoongAng Daily, revived the debate in May when it aired a report in which the manager, Huh Gang-il, said he was forced by the NIS to bring the 12 workers to the South.

Huh said he had worked as an informant for the NIS for a year and asked to defect when his cover was about to be blown.

An NIS official, according to Huh, told him to take the 12 workers under his supervision, saying the South Korean government would reward him with a medal for bravery and give him a job at the NIS.

Four workers interviewed by JTBC said it was only after they saw the South Korean flag at the embassy in Malaysia that they realized they were defecting to the South.

Huh said he decided to come forward because the NIS did not keep its promise of rewards and added that he felt guilty for lying to his workers.

Shortly after the JTBC interview, the North Korean state media accused the South of luring the defectors and urged the government to return them home, at one point threatening to pull out of a planned reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Nonetheless, delegations from both Koreas met at the end of June to hammer out details for the event and agreed to hold the reunion from Aug. 20 to 26 at Mount Kumgang in North Korea.

At a news briefing in Seoul on Tuesday, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said that he interviewed some of the restaurant workers during his week-long stay in the city and came to learn there were “victims” who were “subject to some kind of deceit in regards to where they were going.”

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