The South Korean TV network JTBC has seemingly become the chief muckraker and scandal broadcaster, capable of seriously influencing South Korea’s internal politics. At a point in time, they were the ones who found the tablet PC, with evidence that Choi Soon-sil, ex-president Park Geun-hye’s confidante, meddled in state affairs. The network also made a serious contribution to the spectacle surrounding the comment-rigging scandal. And now they have served up the latest scandal brewing in South Korea, which, in reality, is a sequel to the previous one.
Perhaps, the readers remember the infamous case of “the defected restaurant workers”, which involved 12 female employees and one male manager from the North Korean restaurant Ryugyong in Ningbo, in China’s north-eastern province of Zhejiang, leaving CHN for Malaysia. They then applied for asylum at the South Korean embassy and arrived in Seoul in April 2016, 6 days before the parliamentary elections. On the one hand, their defection was widely publicized and served up to the public as a sign of mass dissatisfaction in DPRK (all the restaurant staff defected!). On the other hand, the young women remained under heightened security and no one, other than lawyers and human rights advocates paid off by the security services, was allowed to see them. They were subsequently released and placed in a witness protection program, thus making them extremely hard to find. None of them made any public statements, while, in contrast, DPRK leadership and the waitresses who remained in China, started talking about an abduction straight away.
These oddities attracted immediate attention, and soon after, a leading opposition newspaper, The Hankhyoreh, published results of their own investigation, which concluded that the defection was not unplanned but instead organized by the South Korean intelligence services.
On 21 July 2017, Tomas Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, visited Seoul with the sole aim of making sense of this affair. During a press conference following the visit, Quintana, on the one hand, “identified discrepancies in several points offering explanations in this case”, but, on the other hand, demanded that neither South Korea nor DPRK use this incident for political purposes.
There was quite a buzz about what actually happened, and the author made a prediction, based on public sources, that the manager, caught for questionable dealings, did not wish to return home for a reprimand, and instead approached South Korea’s intelligence services, who decided to manufacture a sensational tale of defection, which conveniently coincided with the parliamentary elections. At the appointed time, the manager, in possession of all of the young women’s passports, announced to the restaurant staff that they were ordered to relocate to Malaysia, where new jobs awaited them. However, on arrival the young women were told that they “had chosen freedom” leaving them with no choice. Perhaps, some of them had already accepted their current plight, while others, not as yet, which is why the waitresses had been isolated and then immediately placed in the witness protection program.
For this very reason, at the beginning of 2018, while considering possible steps that Seoul could have taken to prove its sincere desire for dialogue, the author noted that South Korea’s new president could have added more transparency to “the case of the thirteen defected restaurant workers” by initiating an investigation into it. If the young women who ended up in South Korea against their will, were to return home, North Korea would appreciate this gesture, while Moon Jae-in would be able to inflict an additional blow to his enemies in the intelligence services thus solving several internal political issues.
Finally, the author’s predictions and hopes have come to pass. The restaurant manager, Heo Gang-il, talked in detail about what had happened on TV. Although his face remained hidden, he provided enough evidence to confirm his identity, including scanned pages from passports of all the North Korean defectors or documents pertaining to the restaurant. “It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead,” said Heo during the interview.
Naturally, Heo Gang-il’s testimony should not be whole-heartedly believed, still his version of events is as follows. Heo volunteered to spy for South Korea in 2014 after Jang Song-thaek’s execution and the subsequent purge of five of his former classmates, deemed close to Jang.
Interestingly, Heo made a pledge of allegiance to South Korea’s administration and had his photograph taken with the South Korean flag in the background. The author’s other sources revealed that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service indeed has such practices especially in the case of people who have demonstrated questionable loyalty. If North Korea gets its hands on the photograph, its subject faces an unenviable plight
Unfortunately, Heo’s allegiance had been exposed, and when he asked his liaison at the security services to help him defect, the agent ordered the manager to bring the women along, promising him a medal and guaranteeing work for the government. The intelligence service agent told Heo that it was Park Geun-hye, who had virtually approved this operation herself. He also said that the defection would have important political ramifications “The democratic party is a pro-North Korean force and should be beaten by any means necessary.” The carrot was then immediately replaced by a stick, in the form of a threat to report the manager to the North Korean embassy if he did not manage to take the young women with him.
Heo intended to also help his family escape from DPRK, and the defection was set for 30 May, 2016. However, there was a sudden order to speed everything up, and the restaurant staff left China on 3 April. And when several young women refused to enter the embassy, Heo threatened to report them to the relevant authorities for watching South Korean films, by essentially saying “If you want to survive, then follow me.”
Reporters were able to talk to several former waitresses, who confirmed Heo’s story. They said that it had been their dream to work in China, as their earnings per month there were equivalent to yearly earnings at home. Now they have to hide their identity so as not to bring harm to their parents in North Korea, where defectors’ families are often treated as traitors.
Heo came clean only after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment or to be more precise, because he had, apparently, not received his reward from the special services. He was allegedly told that the democrats’ victory made it difficult to reward him, and he was asked to wait for the conservatives’ return to power. Having understood that everything had been done with the aim to unite the conservative votes at the parliamentary elections, Heo repented and decided to clear his conscience. Still, the author believes that a likelier version of events is that amidst impeachment proceedings, the manager and the spies were unable to agree on the size of the payoff for silence, or the new intelligence service leadership decided to play a different hand.
After all, this media bombshell exploded at just the right time judging by the political environment then. Several days earlier, the blogger Druking, the key player in the “online comment-rigging scandal” (add an article reference from 19.05.2018) had finally been arrested and placed behind bars. Apparently, he began making detailed statements, on the basis of which the opposing parties started unequivocally demanding that the authorities appoint special counsel with broad legal powers to initiate an independent investigation. If rumors prove right, the South Korean public is in for an unpleasant shock, since the enthusiasm for the Candlelight struggle, involving over 100,000 strong protests in support of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, may have been generated by fake news, published online as on direct orders from Moon’s immediate circle, or even Moon himself.
As things stand, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification is in the process of verifying these “new claims” and is of the opinion that the North Korean defectors’ rights were not violated, still, their representative admitted that in 2016, when the restaurant workers had arrived in South Korea, the ministry simply relayed information it obtained from the intelligence services. As a result, South Korea’s bar association and public organizations petitioned the police to investigate these claims, accusing the former security service head, Lee Byung-ho and the former Unification Minister, Hong Yong-pyo, of collusion.
We shall see how this scandal unfolds and whether the victims of this incident can return home, which is especially important at a time when the inter-Korean dialogue faces difficulties and lacks gestures of good will from the South Korean side.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading 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.”