12.06.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the scandal of the North Korean escapee waitresses

25843031Prior to the parliamentary elections in South Korea, the news was awash with a beautiful story regaling readers with the refrain: “they chose freedom!”. 13 people (12 women and one man, the manager) escaped from the North Korean restaurant, Ryugyong, in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in Southeast China to South Korea.

At first, the story was presented in the finest of “cold war” traditions. The news broke of specially selected staff, middle-class immigrants who had ended up in China, where they began to watch South Korean TV series and surf the net. It was then that they understood how they had been deceived by the North Korean propaganda and how good life in the South is, thus making the decision to escape. What’s more, prior to the upcoming WPK Congress, the authorities had begun to demand large cash transfers, while the ban on South Korean tourists visiting North Korean restaurants had caused restaurant revenues to drop, and its staff had come under threat of repressions…

According to South Korean media, in late March, the North Koreans had come to contact with South Korean officials and informed them of their desire to escape. However, it was impossible to simply up and leave to South Korea – the North Korean authorities could waylay the escapees in Chinese airports, plus the Chinese authorities do not look favourably on such operations. Therefore, the escapees were dressed to look like South Koreans, given South Korean passports in advance, put in cars provided by South Koreans and taken overland to Malaysia, from where, on April 7, they flew into Seoul without fanfare.

At this point, a few clarifications should be made. North Korea has about 130 restaurants in 12 countries around the world, which, it is believed, bring in about $10 million a year. Most of them are in China, but at least two are in Moscow for example. Naturally, anti-Pyongyang propaganda states that the restaurants do not only cook, but also carry out money laundering of illicit funds and reconnaissance.

North Korea immediately accused Seoul of kidnapping by the South’s intelligence agencies, but as per their tradition, expressed this view in such terms and in such a tone that everyday readers believed the South Korean version even more.

The story seemed beautiful and met all the criteria of an exciting action film. Even the fact that in reality, this story had taken place a little earlier and was made public in the run-up to the elections did not ruin the veneer. Especially when the Ministry of Unification said that another group of employees of a North Korean restaurant in China had made their escape to South Korea, and the American radio station Free Asia reported that in connection with the group runaway, the employees of North Korean restaurants in China had been forbidden to leave the confines of their workplace.

The story was even used to scare and maintain the spirit of vigilance: another “anonymous source, with knowledge of the situation in North Korea,” told the newspaper Hankook Ilbo that in retaliation preparations are under way for the abduction of 120 South Koreans. Therefore citizens are recommended to refrain from travelling to regions in China and the Russian Federation that border North Korea.

But then, questions started to arise. Isn’t this story a bit too much like a film? For example, such establishments have a state security officer who monitors the staff. Did he also “choose freedom” or was this an infiltration operation by a secret services operative to the South?

Then, certain uncomfortable details began to surface. First, it became clear that not all of the restaurant’s staff had made their escape. Thirteen had run away, but seven had remained and returned to Pyongyang. Moreover, these seven employees began to speak. And it wasn’t the North Korean media they gave interviews to, but CNN. So there was an alternative version in the media: the “escape” was organised fraudulently by the director of the restaurant and a South Korean businessman on the instructions of the South Korean authorities. The evacuated waitresses were told that they were being transferred to work in another country in Southeast Asia and were then taken against their will to South Korea. Some, however, were warned about the true aim of the escape, and that is why the senior waitress and 6 other women did not get in the car waiting for them.

Against this background, even the Southerners’ statements began to be received with a greater degree of criticism. Of course, the story of how a North Korean girl who lived behind the iron curtain, was taken with the spirit of freedom and decided to escape serves beautifully for propaganda purposes. But the problem is that the women who go to work as waitresses in these restaurants usually belong to the same social stratum, which, judging by the reports of foreign residents who live in Pyongyang, is sufficiently informed about life in South Korea, despite all possible bans. And if it were immigrants not from Pyongyang, but the bordering provinces, then there is even less problems in collecting prohibited content, given that it can be broadcast on Chinese local channels which show a number of South Korean TV series.

Also, the opposition newspaper Hankyoreh Sinmun got in touch with the Chinese restaurant owner and found out that the manager that was, it seems, the main instigator of the escape, had apparently been caught stealing serious sums (the amount stolen was $185,000), and was threatened with being called back to the North.

The statements of the women themselves would go a long way to explain the situation. The women who stayed in North Korea talk a lot, but they are widely not taken seriously, many firmly believing that they are being forced to say what they say, otherwise they would be shot along with their families. What is more important is why are those who escaped remaining silent? Of course, they could be undertaking the adaptation course that is mandatory for defectors. But if their choice was sincere, nothing would stop them from confirming this in the presence of neutral lawyers. However, when on May 16 the Lawyers for a Democratic Society Association demanded a meeting with the women, the authorities refused: “seeing as they are in the early stages of adaptation, it is not appropriate that they meet strangers.” Even their names were kept secret.

So far the “black box” situation has not been resolved as it was only on May 21 that a certain lawyer who specializes in cases involving the violation of human rights under the National Intelligence Service managed to talk to the women. This person, of course, confirmed the official version of the events (all the women are healthy, all fled voluntarily, they have full freedom, etc.), but the fact that other lawyers were not allowed to see the women only added fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, on May 23, a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference was held in Pyongyang where it was announced that the abductees are in custody in South Korea and are undergoing strong psychological pressure. In response, the North Korean women announced a hunger strike, and some of them are in critical condition. The parents and relatives of the women demanded their immediate return, apologies and that the perpetrators be punished: South Korea “is obliged to take all the necessary steps to ensure that parents of the women obtain unimpeded entry to Seoul to meet their


As a result, there are several conflicting versions of events in the public arena, and the author does not give a particular preference to any of them because they are not supported by direct evidence. Perhaps it was really a mass escape. But it is equally possible that it was an open provocation by the South Korean intelligence services, whose clumsy methods of operation go without saying. It is even more likely that the thieving manager accepted the offer of escaping to the South and the women, some or all, were hostages of his cunning plan.

Of course, the majority of defectors from the North to the South are likely to have fled sincerely, although more than half of the defectors, particularly those from the border areas, run away owing more to economic than political reasons. But when you come across a story that looks suspiciously like a plot of a propaganda film about a flight for freedom, be careful: behind the scenes, there may be a good different version of the troubled fate.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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