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Human rights commission to probe defection

Key question is whether they came to Seoul on own free will
July 30,2018
The National Human Rights Commission will look into the April 2016 defection of 12 North Korean restaurant workers and their manager amid lingering questions over whether they came to South Korea on their own free will, the government’s human rights watchdog announced on Sunday.

The decision to conduct an investigation comes after the restaurant manager alleged 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.

The commission hopes to answer whether the workers came to South Korea on 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.

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 on their own free will, but Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

JTBC 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 NIS informant 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 told JTBC that it was only after they saw the South Korean flag at the embassy in Malaysia that they realized they were defecting to the South.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said on July 10 after interviewing some of the defectors that they were “victims” who were “subject to some kind of deceit in regards to where they were going.”

But other advocates, such as Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, say the workers could have lied to protect family members back home who might face harsh punishment, including the death penalty.

Cho Myoung-gyon, the minister of unification, which handles relations with the North, told lawmakers at the National Assembly on Tuesday that employees at his ministry interviewed two of the defectors but said they were trying to avoid contact with the government, possibly to protect their families in the North.

“We are well aware of the seriousness and importance of the issue,” Cho said, pledging to take into account many aspects of the matter, including the “basic human rights” of the defectors.

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.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]