By Robert R. King
A few days ago during a visit to Seoul, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for an investigation into conditions under which 12 North Korean waitresses and their manager who defected from China to South Korea two years ago with the help of South Korean officials.
UN Special Rapporteur Quintana, who has been vilified in the North Korean press, has an excellent record as a human rights attorney. Because of his strong human rights reputation and his position with the United Nations, Mr. Quintana’s comments received considerable attention in South Korea.
The 12 female workers were among the many young women from the North who are allowed to leave the DPRK in order to work as waitresses and musical performers at North Korean government-owned restaurants in China and other Asian countries. These are a major source of hard currency for the North.
The group of 12 waitresses and musicians, as is the case with other such young women, lived together dormitory-style under the supervision of the male North Korean manager. In April 2016, the entire group of 12 plus the manager defected to South Korea from the restaurant in Nignbo, China, an important port and industrial city just south of Shanghai.
In a departure from usual practice, the South Korean government announced the group defection in April 2016. This was the largest and most public group defection since Kim Jong-un became DPRK leader in late 2011. The defection of the 13 was announced by the spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Unification, who suggested that the defections were the result of difficult living conditions in the North after the imposition of sanctions a month or so previously and that the group were “tired of Pyongyang’s ideological campaigns.” He also added that they “had become disillusioned with their home country after watching South Korean television dramas and films.”
As soon as the defections were announced by the South, the North mounted a campaign to denounce the “so-called defection” as nothing more than an abduction by South Korea. Seven other waitresses, purportedly from the same North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China, were paraded out for CNN in a Pyongyang hotel shortly after the defections became known. One of the seven, standing with her colleagues, sobbed, “We would never leave our parents, country, and leader Kim Jong-un. None of us would ever do that.” A North Korean Red Cross spokesperson quickly denounced the action as a “group abduction” of North Koreans “in broad daylight” according to KCNA, the official North Korean press agency.
The call made a few days ago by UN Special Rapporteur Quintana for an investigation of the circumstances of the defection was the result of a news story that appeared in May of this year in which the North Korean manager at the restaurant in China said that he “tricked” the 12 young women “into going to South Korea at the bidding of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).”
Although the defections took place under the conservative government of former President Park Geun-hye, the current government of progressive President Moon Jae-in reiterated that the waitresses came voluntarily. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification said, “I understand that the workers came to the South of their own free will.” Despite this reiteration by the current South Korean government, there are media calls for an independent investigation.
Unfortunately, the controversy has shifted emphasis away from the underlying human rights atrocities that are the basis of the problem. It is instructive to note that the free press of South Korea has investigated and opined on the case, providing increasing detail and a wide variety of opinion on the issue. In stark contrast, the state-controlled media in Pyongyang have sung the same melody in unison. The heart of the orchestrated campaign was that these abducted victims should be returned to the North.
The human rights atrocities at the real root of the problem, however, are North Korea’s gross violation of fundamental human rights.
One of these is the right of North Koreans to leave the country. The rightfully celebrated Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, concluded (Paragraph 380): “The Commission finds that DPRK citizens are subject to restrictions on foreign travel that in practice amount to a virtual travel ban on ordinary citizens, which is enforced through extreme violence and harsh punishment.” It is difficult for Americans to appreciate this because when Americans board a flight to leave the United States, there is no passport control. Airline personnel, not U.S. government border guards, check passports, but this is only to be sure that the traveler has the proper visa to enter the destination country.
Those who do leave the North illegally are subjected to severe punishment in North Korea prison camps. The UN Commission of Inquiry Report (Paragraphs 693-845) described “the widespread use of torture and inhuman treatment” including starvation in the prisons and detainment facilities in the DPRK. In meetings I had as U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights with individuals from the DRPK who recently arrived in the South, I was struck by the number who were able to escape the North only after several attempts. Without exception they described brutal treatment and imprisonment for months or even years when they were apprehended for attempting to leave the country.
These measures are in clear violation of internationally recognized human rights, and they were strongly condemned by the UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights.
The other element that needs to be kept in mind is the consequence for family members who are left behind in the North when family members go to South Korea or elsewhere without official permission. Family members in the North are severely punished when relatives leave illegally—even when they had no idea that a family member intended to go. Most family members who leave do not tell family members of their plans. They are also generally very careful in South Korea to mask their identities. If family members left behind are identified, they are punished. (A New York Times story has interesting details about defectors and family members left behind.)
Thae Yong-ho, the former second ranking official in the DPRK embassy in London, defected with his wife and two teen-aged sons in 2016. In talking about his experiences with an American journalist, he said, “Our freedom here [he was in Seoul] is achieved at the cost of the sacrifice of my family members left in North Korea. When a defection of my level happens, the North Korean regime usually sends the family members of high officials, defectors, to remote areas or labor camps and, to some extent, even to political prison camps as well.”
It should be kept in mind that some defectors prefer to be identified as having been abducted rather than leaving voluntarily. This may make it easier on family members who remain in the DPRK. The manager of the North Korean restaurant in China who led the group of waitresses, according to a recent press story claimed that he “tricked” the young women into leaving—they did not defect. He also gave a reason for his own decision. “He says five of his friends were executed without trial and he feared he could one day face a similar fate.”
The bottom line is that the issue is complex. As Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea told one journalist, this is basically “a senior UN official reaching a verdict prior to any investigation.”
It may be helpful to have a more formal investigation of the circumstances, but at the same time the issue is complicated and those unique elements need to be taken into consideration. One thing that seems clear, in the future publicizing or calling attention defections may not be a good idea. For their own security and for the security of family members who remain in North Korea, uncertainty about who and why some individuals may have defected may be the safest course.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.