Back To Top

International lawyers urge Seoul to repatriate N. Korean waitresses

A committee of international lawyers has concluded that a dozen North Korean restaurant workers who arrived in South Korea in April 2016 were victims of an abduction, and called for their repatriation to Pyongyang.

The fact-finding committee on Monday released the final report on its probe into the high-profile “mass defection” case after conducting investigations in both Koreas. 

The committee, formed in May, comprises International Association of Democratic Lawyers’ representative to the United Nations Micol Savia, along with Secretary-General Jun Sasamoto and Vice President Niloufer Bhagwat of IADL’s Asia-Pacific subgroup, the Confederation of Lawyers for Asia and Pacific.

On April 8, 2016, the Unification Ministry under the Park Geun-hye administration announced that 12 female workers at a state-run North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China, had defected with their manager, Heo Gang-il. 

The rare disclosure fanned speculation that South Korea’s spy agency may have been behind the group defection, in an attempt to influence an impending parliamentary election.

While Seoul at the time said the North Korean women had defected willingly, Pyongyang said they were abducted.

Seven North Korean women, who were former colleagues of the 12 alleged defectors, spoke with the fact-finding committee on Sept. 2 at a hotel in Pyongyang. (IADL)
Seven North Korean women, who were former colleagues of the 12 alleged defectors, spoke with the fact-finding committee on Sept. 2 at a hotel in Pyongyang. (IADL)

In the final report, the international lawyers said the restaurant employees had been kidnapped for partisan motives and ideological propaganda. The lawyers accused South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of conspiring with the North Korean manager to bring the women here by way of deception and staging a false defection to rally conservative votes.

The lawyers said while the South Korean government had denied involvement, Seoul officials -- including those at the NIS -- were complicit in the 2016 events, and demanded they be punished along with Heo. They also called for immediate action to reunite the 12 women with their families and compensate them for the injustice.

The three international lawyers said the Seoul authorities had not permitted any contact with the North Korean women, citing security reasons.

During their visit to Seoul from Aug. 25 to Aug. 30, the committee criticized the South Korean human rights watchdog’s delay in releasing the results of its own probe. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea launched the investigation in response to a complaint from Minbyun, or Lawyers for a Democratic Society, which accused the NIS of staging the defection.

Two lawyers from the committee -- Sasamoto and Bhagwat -- visited Pyongyang from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, during which they spoke with the women’s families and seven of their former colleagues at the restaurant, as well as with North Korean authorities.

In a preliminary report on their findings in Pyongyang, released Sept. 4, the lawyers said the women had been deceived and brought to the South via Malaysia against their will by their manager, Heo, whom they accused of colluding with a South Korean intelligence agent.

The lawyers said they had based their conclusion on the 12 women’s interviews with UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana on July 4, 2018, and on the Sept. 2 testimonies of former employees at the restaurant, one of whom claimed to have overheard a conversation between the manager and a South Korean intelligence agent.

“This constitutes the criminal offense of abduction,” the report said.

After the committee released its preliminary report, the rights commission said Sept. 9 that it had found insufficient evidence to suspect state agencies intervened in the "group defection" after investigating the case for over a year.

The rights commission recognized, however, that publicizing information about defectors raised concerns of privacy rights violations.

Kim Eun-han, deputy spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, told The Korea Herald the ministry intends to adhere to the commission’s recommendations, which were to identify what had led to the disclosure of defection information to public, and to adhere to the principles of confidentiality.

Kim said the ministry had seen the lawyer group’s report. He added that relevant authorities had confirmed at the time the women’s intent to enter South Korea.

The final report will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.

By Kim Arin (