Twelve Famous North Korean Waitresses Who Defected Two Years Ago Might Have Been Taken Against Their Will


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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The 12 North Korean waitresses who defected from China two years ago might have actually been taken to South Korea against their will, a new report suggests, possibly confirming North Korea’s claims that they were kidnapped.

When the defectors, many of whom were elites from good families, arrived in South Korea in April 2016, their defection made international headlines because it was the largest group of defectors to flee North Korea in years. While Seoul insisted they defected of their own free will, the high-profile defection infuriated Pyongyang, which asserted they were forcibly taken to South Korea. A shocking revelation Thursday has Seoul investigating whether North Korea’s claims are true, according to The Associated Press.

Heo Gang Il, the manager of the restaurant in Ningbo where the 12 women worked, told JTBC Thursday he was recruited by South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, in 2014 but asked to for extraction in 2016 over concerns that his cover was blown. After arranging his defection, NIS purportedly told him to bring his staff with him at the last minute, AFP reported Friday.

Heo admitted that he blatantly lied to the waitresses about the intended destination of their travels, telling them only that the business was relocating, and threatened them when they hesitated to follow directions, particularly when it came time for them to enter the South Korean embassy in Malaysia. “The 12 waitresses did not know where they were going,” he said.

“It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead,” he explained, telling reporters he was coming forward because certain promises made to him by the South Korean government never materialized.

One of the 12 women confirmed Heo’s testimony, explaining to the reporters, “Manager Heo threatened us, saying he will tell security authorities that we watched South Korean TV dramas and that we would be executed, or exiled into provinces and our families would also be affected.”

“Thinking back, it was all nonsense but back then, I had no other choice,” the woman said. “If it was possible for me to go home even now, I would like to return to the bosom of my mother.”

While uncommon, it is not unheard of for defectors who believe they were lured to South Korea under false premises to express a desire to return home. (RELATED: Defector Begs To Return To North Korea In Unexpected Outburst At UN Meeting)

The veracity of the report is still in question, but the claims seem consistent with those of the defectors’ former colleagues, who spoke out against the alleged kidnapping shortly after the defection went down two years ago.

“In mid-March our restaurant manager gathered us together and told us that our restaurant would be moved to somewhere in Southeast Asia,” head waitress Choe Hye Yong, one of seven North Korean workers who spoke with CNN at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang shortly after the defection, revealed. “The car was already waiting for us at that time.”

“I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there,” Han Yun Hui, another waitress told reporters, adding, “It tears our hearts.” Commenting on the possibility of defecting abroad, she said, “We would never leave our parents, country, and leader Kim Jong Un. None of us would ever do that.”

At the time of the sensational defection, the South Korean Ministry of Unification released the following statement on the issue: “Thirteen defectors voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside. Following their voluntary request to defect, our government accepted them from a humanitarian point of view.”

The Ministry of Unification, however, was never able to directly interview the women, who were under the protection of the South Korean spy agency.

“New claims have been made on how the North Korean workers escaped and arrived in South Korea and whether they were acting on their free will,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae Hyun said Friday. “For now, I can only say there’s a need to confirm whether these claims are true.”

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