South Korea spy agency releases North’s restaurant defectors
South Korea’s intelligence service has released a dozen North Korean restaurant workers whose defection in April triggered accusations from Pyongyang that they were kidnapped, a government official said Tuesday.
All 12 were waitresses at a North Korea-themed restaurant in China who arrived in the South with their manager, making headlines as the largest group defection in years.
While Seoul said they fled voluntarily, Pyongyang claimed they were kidnapped by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and waged a vocal campaign through its state media for their immediate return.
Most new arrivals from the North are held for about three months at an NIS interrogation facility for screening for potential spies.
They are then sent to a resettlement centre for three months’ training, after which they are free to start their new lives in South Korean society.
The NIS announced in June that the 12 women would remain in its protective custody, rather than being sent to the centre.
The Unification Ministry said Tuesday that the NIS had completed its questioning and the defectors had already begun their new lives.
“The 12 North Korean overseas restaurant workers were released from the NIS interrogation facility last week,” a ministry official said.
“They did not want to be interviewed or make public their whereabouts,” the official said.
The dispute over the defectors has fanned inter-Korean tensions that have been running high since the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.
Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.
But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered “loyal” to the regime.