05.08.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Scandal with Missing North Korean Waitresses: Will they Appear before Court?

534534543534A scandal that involved thirteen North Korean defectors—a restaurant manager and twelve waitresses, employees of a North Korean restaurant, which was already covered in our previous articles is gaining momentum. Following the public request, the waitresses were required to appear before court. After some details of their detention were disclosed, even the UN human rights authorities decided to step in and investigate the case. 

In this regard, it must be clarified that there is a standard screening procedure in South Korea for defectors fleeing from North Korea. First, a defector is kept at the Defector Protection Center (earlier known as the Joint Interrogation Center), an arm of the National Intelligence Service, where the employees of the Center interview defectors to make sure they are not North Korean spies or Chinese Koreans posing as refugees to get free refugee support. Then, the defector is sent to the Unification Ministry’s half-way house, abbreviated as “Hanawon,” unless it is detected that the North Korean is a person who knows secrets and who needs special treatment and defense. Hanawon’s program is two-three months long. There the defectors are familiarized with the way of life in Republic of Korea and are taught some basic practical skills (e.g., computer literacy, driving skills, etc.) necessary for the northerners to settle in South Korea.

As for the waitresses, they apparently do not possess any classified data. Plus, their case has been circulating in the press for so long that hardly anybody should be questioning the motives of their escape. That means that technically they should have been transferred to Hanawon a long time ago. However, for some reason they are still being kept in isolation, despite at the time of their arrival in South Korea, the Ministry of Unification forecast that it would not take more than a couple of months for the Intelligence Service to complete screening, after which the girls would be transferred to Hanawon.

But the girls have not been released till this day. They communicate only with the lawyers representing the National Intelligence Service, who, having visited them several times, claim that the waitresses feel intimidated to testify in court. “They believe that if they openly state they left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on their own free will, the lives of their families in North Korea will be endangered.” So this excuse is used to justify their alleged decision not to go public. Nobody could force them to do otherwise as it would violate their human rights.

At the same time, there are rumors that “the defectors have already taken an orientation course at the Defector Protection Center, where they were taught how to shop in South Korean department stores and supermarkets.” The only problem with these rumors is that the Defector Protection Center is a place where South Korean Intelligence, Public Prosecutor’s Office and police conduct joint interrogations, i.e. the Center has never been involved in the refugee socialization.

Both the decision to delay the transfer of the defectors to Hanawon and a strict limitation of their contacts appear to be unusual. Not only representatives of public organizations, but also researchers from the Center for North Korean Human Rights of the Korea Institute for National Unification were denied the right to meet with the defectors. Representatives of the Institute for National Unification are ultimately the only civilians who would normally be rendered regular access to defectors. Usually, they visit the Defector Protection Center twice a week and conduct surveys. This time, however, they were not allowed access to the defectors. This fact testifies that there is something wrong with this “escape,” and that the “abduction” versions is, perhaps, not so ungrounded after all.

Later, the request of another organization to meet with the defectors was also denied. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conducts a parallel investigation of this high-profile incident. It even plans to send its representatives to Pyongyang to interview the waitresses’ family members. Buy the way, the decision of OHCHR to conduct interviews was a response to a written assistance request filed with UN by the girls’ parents. According to the sources of the left South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh, OHCHR repeatedly asked for a permission to arrange a meeting, but was repeatedly denied.

In the end, to cap the rumors and disputes, the court of Seoul summoned the twelve defectors. They were supposed to come to court and explain the intent of their escape. However, “the government authorities” (or, rather, the Intelligence Service) state that until the girls “get adjusted in the South Korean society,” they should not be forced to make public appearances or be subjected to excessive pressure. South Korean Intelligence even had to engage Pe, Kim & Li law firm to counteract a request filed by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a South Korean human rights group that harshly criticizes the official version of the incident. The leading conservative newspaper The Chosun Ilbo termed the court decision “a concession to North Korea.”

Representatives of the Intelligence Service consistently refuse to comment on the case. This quite naturally encourages the spread of the rumor that the story about waitresses-defectors made public on April 8, one day after they arrived in South Korea and five days before the parliamentary elections, had been plotted, and that at least some of them had been taken to South Korea against their will. Even The Chosun Ilbo made a note that there is a contradiction between the actions of the court and of the government authorities, where the latter are trying their best to ensure the girls do not make any public statements.

It seems that this rumor is not ungrounded. Apparently, there are no formal reasons to keep the girls from giving interviews or moving to Hanawon. The explanation that “they need time to get used to the new culture” sounds awkward. The waitresses who worked in China for quite some time should be knowledgeable enough to easily adjust in South Korea. Another explanation that “if they confess, it would hurt their families” is also controversial. Pyongyang would most likely contend that the South used torture and psychological pressure to “beat out” the “confession” than subject the defenders’ families to mass repressions. If you recall the case with the defector Shin Dong-hyuk, despite his “confessions” did the country a great deal of harm, his father and other relatives were never persecuted. As for the alleged refusal of the waitresses to interact and other “no comments” situations, they convey a rather unequivocal message that “there is something fishy” about this case.

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

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