After the scandal of the “escaped waitresses”, South Korean media spread some telling news. According to Yonhap News Agency (citing “an anonymous source well informed about the situation in North Korea”), the North Korean intelligence agencies are preparing to kidnap South Korean citizens via the North Korean restaurants in China at the special order of Kim Jong-un as a “response to the acts of provocation”. According to the anonymous source, North Korea is increasing the number of special private rooms in its restaurants. These rooms are designed for loyal customers from the South. It is planned that they will be invited to these rooms, plied with drinks and kidnapped. Thus, North Korea has increased the number of the staff in the Reconnaissance General Bureau in the frontier zone between the North Korean Yongbyon and the Chinese Dandong.
KBS World Radio, referring to “a source from Beijing, who is familiar with the situation in the North,” states that special groups of the military intelligence service have been sent to China and South-East Asia to prepare acts of provocation with the participation of foreign gangs. South Korean citizens will be kidnapped in order to exchange them for the employees of the North Korean restaurant that fled to the South.
This news would be all right if not for the rather sensational news that broke shortly afterwards completely refuting this. According to Free North Korea Radio that refers to anonymous sources in Shenyang, after a series of runaways by waitresses from restaurants to South Korea, Kim Jong-un issued a special decree and demanded, “Make sure that nobody from South Korea can enter our restaurants in China!” This decree became effective in all North Korean restaurants in the territory of China on June 9, 2016. As confirmation, Free North Korea Radio referred to another anonymous informant, who stated that recently at least two North Korean restaurants in the Chinese border town of Dandong had not been allowing South Koreans to have dinner there.
Thus, the news about the preparation for kidnapping raised doubts among experts. First, separate rooms are available in both North and South Korean restaurants and not only citizens of the Republic of Korea are served there as VIPs. Second, the kidnapping scenario described is not effective as such restaurants are usually visited by groups and the disappearance of a large number of people would attract attention. Third, China’s intelligence services do not approve of such raids by special forces in its territory and the author heard that if the Chinese authorities were informed that if those waitresses were not merely being relocated as their manager stated, they would have taken certain measures. Finally, after two months, there were no scandals related to kidnapping of South Korean citizens.
Certainly, one should not expect that amid a large scale campaign to demonise North Korea, the left hand will always know what the right hand is doing. However, both rumours were aimed at frightening South Korean tourists off North Korean cuisine. It is a known fact that except for civil servants or persons of equal status who are not allowed to go to North Korean restaurants in accordance with their duty regulations, ordinary citizens are keen to explore exotic things. This does not bring about any pro-North Korean sentiments of course, it is rather the search for a moderate thrill. However, even this level of contact probably causes a twinge of ill-feeling among some in Seoul.
Some columnists believe that the “horror story” has been spread by the Southern authorities, who are trying to frighten their citizens off restaurants of the North. Earlier, the South Korean government strongly recommended not visiting North Korean restaurants explaining that the money earned this way was used for the development of the North Korean missile and nuclear program. In the author’s opinion, the revenue from North Korean restaurants abroad is not high enough to finance such expensive programs.
Sadly, these canards are spread throughout the country, which is often held up as an example of democracy and freedom.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”