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12 North Korean Waitresses Held Incommunicado in South Korea

Friday, 29 July 2016

Plight of the 12 North Korean Waitresses Held Incommunicado in South Korea

On the 5th April the male manager and 12 female staff left a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China and arrived two days later in Seoul. The speed of the journey via Southeast Asia and especially the timing aroused suspicion. This was just a few days before a general election in South Korea and it was alleged that the exercise had been organised by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to boost the ruling conservative Saenuri Party’s chances in the election. If that was the plan it failed. On 20 April seven waitresses from the restaurant who had returned to North Korea gave an interview in Pyongyang to CNN. They alleged that their co-workers had been tricked by the manager into leaving, believing that they were being transferred to a restaurant in Southeast Asia. North Korean SOEs operate some 130 restaurants in foreign countries including Cambodia and Vietnam.

Although the ‘defection’ is subject to differing, and often conflicting, interpretations what happened next is beyond doubt. The 12 waitresses have been held incommunicado by the NIS for the last three months. There are rumours that one has died on hunger strike but that cannot be verified because access is denied. They have not been allowed to have contact with their families back in North Korea or with independent lawyers in South Korea and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Amnesty International has called for the ‘lifting of the veil of secrecy’:

The South Korean authorities need to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the North Korean restaurant workers. There has been much speculation, claims and counter-claims as to the group’s plight, but what is missing from this story are the voices of the 13 workers.

For months they have been denied contact with their families or lawyers of their choosing, raising questions as to whether their basic rights are being respected.

The inescapable conclusion must be that the waitress have been kept in confinement, behind a veil of secrecy, precisely because they probably were tricked into going to South Korea and want to return home. To allow the waitresses to choose to return to North Korea would clearly be a huge embarrassment for the South Korean government and it seems likely that they are being subjected to psychological pressure to confirm the NIS narrative. This means that early action is imperative.

In the circumstances it is clear that the only solution to their predicament is for them to be taken to a neutral venue outside South Korea where they can meet their family and freely declare, without constraint and pressure from any direction, what they want to do. We might all look forward to the day when , in a peacefully reunited Korea, people are able to move freely around the peninsula. In the meantime neither these 12 women, nor any other Koreans, should be used as pawns in a political struggle.


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