(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 12)
Truth about defection case
Government should launch independent probe
The Moon Jae-in government should make sincere efforts to lay bare the truth about the controversial 2016 defection of 12 North Korean restaurant workers to South Korea. Such efforts are all the more necessary after Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, called for a thorough and independent investigation into the case Tuesday.
It is timely and appropriate for the rapporteur to demand the inquiry. And there is no reason for the authorities to delay investigating any longer. Getting the true picture of the case will help better protect the human rights of the defectors. It will also have significant implications over the ongoing inter-Korean detente.
The defection of the female workers, who were working at a North Korea-run restaurant in China, has continued to raise suspicions about the South Korean state spy agency's maneuvering in bringing them to Seoul. The conservative government under then-President Park Geun-hye announced the defection only six days before the April 13 general elections in 2016. So opposition parties immediately described the case as a politically motivated scheme to win the polls.
There were allegations a manager at the Ryugyong restaurant in Zhejiang Province, China, contacted an agent of the South's National Intelligence Service (NIS) requesting help defecting to South Korea. He reportedly made the request fearing he was on the verge of being caught spying for Seoul. And then, the NIS allegedly forced the manager, identified by his surname Heo, to bring the restaurant workers to the South.
Yet it is still difficult to confirm those allegations. Therefore, the Moon administration should immediately form an independent investigative team to confirm if the workers were manipulated into coming to the South under the NIS scheme. It is important to find whether they came to defect against their own free will.
It is worth noting what the U.N. special rapporteur said in a press conference wrapping up his week-long visit to the South. Quintana said at least some of the defectors appear to be "victims" of deception. "When I say victims, I am implying that they were subject to some kind of deceit regarding where they were going." He said if the workers defected to the South against their will in a dirty scheme, it might be considered a "crime."
North Korea has repeatedly claimed the NIS and the Seoul government abducted the workers. In recent high-level inter-Korean talks, Pyongyang demanded their return as a precondition for possible reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
If some or all of the workers came to the South against their own free will, they should be allowed to return to the North. This is why their human rights must be better protected. The Moon administration also needs to hold accountable anyone who is found to have orchestrated what could be a flagrant violation of human rights.