SEOUL, Jul 10 (AFP) A dozen North Korean waitresses involved in a high-profile “defection” case two years ago did not know where they were going, the top UN human rights official on North Korea said on Tuesday.
The issue has long been controversial, with Pyongyang saying the women were kidnapped from a North Korean state-run restaurant in China while Seoul insists they defected of their own free will.
In a bombshell revelation in May, the manager of the 12 waitresses said that he had lied about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human rights in the North, told reporters he had interviewed “some” of the 12 waitresses after arriving in Seoul last week.
They told him that “they were taken to the South without knowing they were coming here”, he said.
He urged the South Korean government to carry out a “thorough and independent investigation” to establish the truth of the incident as soon as possible and to “hold to account those who are responsible”.
Heo Gang-il, the manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo where the waitresses worked, said he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.
Fearing exposure in 2016, he asked his NIS handler to arrange his defection. At the last minute the minder told him to bring his staff too.
Ojea Quintana did not say whether the women he spoke to had expressed a desire to return to the North, but said their wishes should be respected, whatever they were.
“My stance as UN Human Rights rapporteur is to respect decisions of the victims,” he said.
“When I say victims, I’m implying they were subject to some kind of deceit with regard to where they were going,” he added.
The South’s Unification Ministry has previously said it is looking into the allegations.