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Defectors might have lied to protect families

Issue of motive continues to divide human rights advocates
July 13,2018
The 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South in 2016 and told a local broadcaster that they were deceived about their final destination could have lied during the interview to protect their families back home, Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday.

Scarlatoiu said he disagreed with Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, who told reporters in Seoul the same day that some of the workers were “victims” who were “subject to some kind of deceit in regards to where they were going.”

Ojea Quintana said he interviewed some of the 12 workers during his week-long stay in the city and came to learn that they had not known they were coming to South Korea.

Scarlatoiu denied this, saying there was no reason for the South Korean government to kidnap North Koreans because there were already some 32,000 North Korean defectors in the country. Instead, the workers could have lied to the UN special rapporteur because if they said they arrived in the South on their own free will, as Seoul has repeatedly said, their families back home might face harsh punishment from North Korean authorities, including the death penalty.

Scarlatoiu’s remarks were in line with those of Baik Tae-hyun, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North. Baik said during a regular news briefing on Wednesday that the workers arrived in the South voluntarily and added that 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 be punished.

John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday that there was likely “heavy coercion” from the North Korean government on the families of the workers, which could have been a factor in their decision-making process. Nonetheless, he added, if the workers really wanted to return to the North, the South Korean government should allow them to do so.

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 will, but Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service.

JTBC, a local cable channel, revived the debate in May when it aired a report in which the manager said he was forced by the NIS to bring the 12 workers to the South. Four workers told the broadcaster they were unaware about their defection.

Seoul 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. South Korean nationals are banned from making any contact with the North unless they receive official approval from the government.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]