SEOUL: A group of South Korean human rights lawyers filed a police complaint on Friday accusing the country’s spy chief of illegally detaining a dozen North Korean restaurant workers who defected in April.
All 12 were waitresses at a North Korea-themed restaurant in China who arrived in the South with their manager, making headlines as the largest group defection in years.
While Seoul says they fled voluntarily, Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) and has waged a campaign through its state media for their immediate return.
The liberal lawyers’ group, called the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, has been seeking direct access to the defectors to determine their version of events.
Having obtained power-of-attorney from the waitresses’ families in the North, the group managed to force a court hearing on Tuesday at which the women had been requested to appear and answer questions.
But the NIS said they were unwilling to testify and refused to bring them to court.
In the police complaint submitted Friday, the lawyers asked that NIS chief Lee Byung-Ho be investigated for abuse of power, accusing him of holding the women against their will and denying them access to the lawyers.
“Given the highly isolated circumstances around the defectors and their lack of knowledge in the South’s legal system, it is very suspicious whether every one of them firmly agreed not to make an appearance at the court,” the lawyers said in a statement.
“We believe that it is highly likely that (Lee) is lying … and trying to conceal the defectors’ intentions by taking advantage of their emotional vulnerability,” the statement said.
Most new arrivals from the North are held for about three months at an NIS interrogation facility for screening for potential spies, before being sent to a resettlement center for three months’ training.
But the NIS announced this week that the 12 women would remain in its protective custody, rather than being sent to the center.
The dispute over the defectors has fanned inter-Korean tensions that have been running high since the North’s fourth nuclear tests in January.
Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.
But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered “loyal” to the regime.