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Mass defection not forced: human rights group

Sept 12,2019
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea announced Monday that it did not find any evidence of a planned operation to force 13 North Korean workers to defect en masse from a restaurant in China in April 2016 to South Korea to influence the 2016 general election.

“We found no evidence to corroborate these claims [that there was illegal government involvement to mastermind the defection] and the National Intelligence Service [NIS] submitted evidence that ran counter to these claims,” the commission said in a statement Monday. “It seemed that a majority of the defectors knew they were defecting to South Korea.”

The commission, however, found illegality in the Blue House allegedly ordering the Ministry of Unification to publicize the defection and requested the prosecution investigate former national security chief of the Blue House, Kim Kwan-jin.

The ministry announced the defection on April 8, 2016, a day after the North Koreans arrived in Seoul.

“The Unification Ministry said it had to follow directions from the Blue House [to disclose the defection to the public],” the commission said. “And the NIS said that it drafted a press release following instructions from the Blue House.”

Kim told the commission that the Blue House “had nothing to do with the publication of the defection case to media,” according to the commission.

But one secretary of the national security office of the Blue House testified to the commission that Kim “gave directions to convey relevant materials to the Unification Ministry to publicize the mass defection,” the commission said in its statement.

The commission also requested the prosecution investigate Lee Byung-ho, former NIS chief who was in office from 2015 to 2017, and Hong Yong-pyo, who was the unification minister from February 2015 to May 2017. The commission recommended that the three former officials be investigated for power abuse and violation of National Intelligence Service Act and Personal Information Protection Act.

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 China in April 2016. Seoul has consistently said they arrived of their own free will, but Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by the NIS.

The restaurant manager alleged in May 2018 that South Korea’s spy agency masterminded the defection. Four of the workers told a local broadcaster that they came to Seoul without knowing their final destination.

A nongovernmental organization of lawyers called Minbyun Lawyers for a Democratic Society then alleged that the former Park Geun-hye administration may have masterminded the defection to influence the 2016 general election. The defection took place just a few days before the general election.

Taking on the case from July 2018, the commission investigated whether the workers came to South Korea of their own free will, whether there was illegal intervention by South Korean authorities and whether publicizing the mass defection a day after their arrival was appropriate.

Minbyun criticized the commission’s findings.

“It took the commission more than a year to investigate the case, yet it failed to obtain any evidence and relied on testimonies to produce its findings,” said Jang Kyung-wook, a lawyer of Minbyun.

A group of overseas lawyers also criticized the commission during their visit to South Korea in August for keeping the defectors waiting for its announcement of findings, which they called a violation of their human rights.

South Korea strictly prohibits North Korean defectors from returning to their home country. Under domestic law, defectors are given South Korean citizenship once they settle in the South and are still considered South Korean citizens even if they re-enter the North.

ESTHER CHUNG, KIM TAE-HO [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]