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[Herald Interview] Lawyers probing NK waitresses’ defection blast ‘uncooperative’ S. Korean officials

International lawyers visit Seoul, Pyongyang to look into high-profile mass defection of N. Korean waitresses in 2016

The mass defection by North Korean restaurant workers in 2016 may have been orchestrated by South Korean authorities for political reasons, according to two lawyers from an international fact-finding committee.

Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific Secretary-General Jun Sasamoto and Vice President Niloufer Bhagwat spoke to The Korea Herald on Friday morning in Myeong-dong, Seoul, before departing for Beijing on Saturday en route to Pyongyang.

Sasamoto and Bhagwat were in Seoul from Sunday to Friday on a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of state-orchestrated human rights violations in the highly publicized North Korean defection case from three years ago.

On April 8, 2016, the Ministry of Unification announced that 13 North Koreans who worked as waitresses at a restaurant in Zhejiang, China, had defected to South Korea. The announcement fanned speculation that the defection may have been orchestrated by the Park Geun-hye administration only days ahead of the parliamentary election April 13, as information about North Korean defections is customarily kept from the public for security reasons.

The two lawyers -- representing human rights lawyers, judges and prosecutors from the Asia-Pacific region -- expressed regret over South Korean authorities’ uncooperativeness during their six-day visit to Korea, calling their efforts to reach out “fruitless.”

Minbyun lawyer Jang Kyung-wook (left) and international lawyers Niloufer Bhagwat and Jun Sasamoto speak to The Korea Herald on Friday morning at a hotel in Myeong-dong, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Minbyun lawyer Jang Kyung-wook (left) and international lawyers Niloufer Bhagwat and Jun Sasamoto speak to The Korea Herald on Friday morning at a hotel in Myeong-dong, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“We came here expecting that a more detailed account of what had happened would be available by now,” they said. “The National Human Rights Commission of Korea said they suspended publishing the results of their investigation, which has already been finalized.”

In a preliminary report published Thursday, the lawyers criticized the tardiness of the release of the rights body’s report, calling it unconscionable and saying it was likely “influenced by state policy” to “extend impunity to state agencies and officials from accountability.”

“Three years have passed since the case first emerged,” Bhagwat said, suggesting the “delay itself indicates there might be something to be concealed.”

In the report, the committee urged the South Korean government, its institutions, agencies and officials to take steps to reconnect the victims with their families in North Korea, saying that doing so would be in the “spirit of the Panmunjom declaration and the Pyongyang joint Declaration.”

Bhagwat said the committee had sought to arrange meetings with the National Intelligence Service, Ministry of Unification and National Police Agency during the two lawyers’ visit via a representative of Lawyers for a Democratic Society, more widely known by the Korean acronym Minbyun. Their requests were denied, however.

“From what the evidence suggests so far, this may be a case where the highest levels of government were involved in what appears to be an instance of a very serious human rights violation,” she said. “We wanted to verify how far these allegations hold true, but weren’t given the chance.”

“I think the least the Unification Ministry, the NIS and NPA could have done is grant us an interview to clarify (the allegations).”

Sasamoto said the lawyers’ association was first alerted to the case by media reports including one broadcast by JTBC in May last year, prompting an inquiry by North Korean and South Korean member lawyers during an August 2018 executive meeting for a joint probe into the “waitresses case.”

Sasamoto said the committee had filed a request with the National Police Agency -- which is protecting the waitresses -- to meet with the women, which was not granted, and that their knowledge of the North Korean defectors’ testimony is limited to what has been uncovered by the media.

In a written response, the police agency explained the waitresses’ whereabouts could not be revealed for reasons of their security, while adding that they are enjoying all the same freedoms and rights as citizens of the Republic of Korea.

“We spoke to the reporter and anchor of the JTBC series ‘Spotlight’ on Tuesday for over two hours, during which they shared with us details of interviews with the waitresses and their findings,” Sasamoto said.

“I suspect the waitresses were forced to confess that they defected to South Korea willingly,” he said, adding, “because of what some of them said in interview with JTBC, that they were not aware they were coming to South Korea.”

Sasamoto said he and the committee members will talk to the waitresses’ families while in Pyongyang and ask if their daughters had “wanted to go to South Korea.” Although he is aware their families might not be in a position to speak candidly, he said he would still “try to listen to them, and deliberate over what the truth is.”

Bang Gum-chan of the Korean Democratic Lawyers Organization, the North Korean member group of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, arranged a four-day itinerary for the committee’s lawyers, which included interviews with seven other waitresses who worked at the restaurant and 12 members of their families, as well as a meeting with officials from the Korean Emergency Measure Committee for Abducted Persons.

Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific Secretary-General Jun Sasamoto (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific Secretary-General Jun Sasamoto (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“The South Korean government announced this case just before the parliamentary election, from what we were told and have read, and I suspect there might be political motives behind it,” Sasamoto said, adding, “The conservative party could rally its base and advance in the elections by showcasing that North Korea is a devastated country.”

He raised concerns that “if -- and only if -- the alleged state-arranged trafficking of North Korean citizens is true, the human rights situation in South Korea may be more subject to influence of politics than other countries,” attributing this to “its divided state.”

The fact-finding committee made its first visit to Seoul in May, mainly to look into North Korean defectors’ situation in Korea.

Sasamoto said the defectors they have talked to said they were “without privacy and isolated from the society” in South Korea. “They said they were also forced to make confessions to the NIS.”

“I am reminded of the time former President Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped back to South Korea as an exiled dissident in Japan,” he said. “There might be something similar going on with this case.”

Bhagwat said she was wary of politics being involved in what is in essence “a humanitarian issue.”

“To find out the truth, nothing but the truth” is the committee’s goal, she said, and “to see that there is a reunion of families, if indeed the young women had been trafficked in this manner and cut off from their ties back home.”

Bhagwat also stressed the importance of a third-party probe into the issue. “An objective perspective is needed,” she said. “Also there is the obvious advantage that we are free to visit both Koreas.”

She said their final report will be produced by the end of September, to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Jang Kyung-wook -- a Minbyun lawyer who facilitated the committee’s activities here -- said a full disclosure of facts surrounding the case will likely face political impediments.

“Imagine the government admitting to the alleged crimes, even if they were committed by the previous administration. It would destroy the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling party,” he said.

“It could be a frightening venture, what the committee’s lawyers are trying to tell. And it might not come through, because oftentimes facts do not matter when it comes to politics.”

By Kim Arin (