There has been a lot of talk recently about the defection of a group of female North Korean restaurant workers in China. Suspicions were raised regarding the defection of such a large group right before the general election in April 2016, and it is now being revealed that the defection was coordinated by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The UN Special Rapporteur for North Korean Human Rights said that some of the workers were not clear about where they were going when they were taken to South Korea, and the owner of the restaurant they were working at (who also accompanied them to South Korea) said that he had been working with the NIS. There is now debate in South Korea over how to deal with the situation.
The South Korean government is adhering to the position that the workers came to South Korea of their own accord. The current government is reinvestigating and meting out punishments for a number of issues involving the past government under the name of “removing deeply-rooted corruption.” However, the Moon Jae In government is maintaining the position of the Park Geun Hye administration that the women came to South Korea of their own volition. One may be forgiven for thinking that if the women were tricked into coming to South Korea, then it would make sense to allow those who wish to return to go back to North Korea and for the rest to stay. However, the situation is more complex.
Their families are being protected by the regime
The families of the women in North Korea are officially considered victims of abduction by the North Korean government, which has deemed their defection an “abduction plot by the South Korean intelligence agency.” The families of the women are thus protected by the government. Because the women are considered abductees, and their families victims of the abduction plot, they have not brought harm to the regime and the authorities have used the incident to emphasize the “inhumane actions” of the South Korean intelligence agency. The North Korean state thus has a reason to protect the women’s families.
That being said, if any of the women state publicly that they want to remain in South Korea, the situation changes. The families of the women are immediately considered the relatives of “traitors.” They are then in the position of being punished by the state. The government has claimed that the families are victims of an abduction plot, so it is difficult to say what kind of punishment they would receive if that happened. Within this context, the Ministry of Unification has noted, “The restaurant workers are afraid that their opinions [on staying or returning to North Korea] will become public and are concerned about their families’ safety.”
They shouldn’t be forced to make a cruel choice
Calling for the truth to be uncovered in this mass defection incident will require a confirmation of whether the workers wish to stay in South Korea. This is a problematic situation. Asking them to decide whether to return to North Korea or not may seem like a harmless question, but in actuality it cruelly forces them to make the choice of whether to return or bring harm to their families in North Korea.
The South Korean government must allow the women’s families to keep their status as the “victims of abduction.” This approach does not require a full investigation into the particulars of the mass defection incident. Rather, it enables the issue to remain as it is so that the two Koreas can still maneuver freely. The South Korean public should not force the women to make the cruel choice of whether to return home or put their families in harm’s way under the guise of ensuring the women make their views public.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.