North Korea links defectors' return to family reunions: Sources

North Korean soldiers staring at the South side at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.
North Korean soldiers staring at the South side at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - North Korea has reiterated that the return of a dozen citizens who were brought to South Korea in 2016 is a precondition for resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported, citing sources well versed in North Korean affairs.

The North's position was made clear in Tuesday's first inter-Korea talks in over two years as well as in preliminary negotiations, Kyodo said, citing the sources, referring to 12 waitresses at a North Korean government-run restaurant in China along with their male manager who arrived in the South on April 7, 2016.

Negotiators from both countries are meeting again on Monday (Jan 15) to discuss appearances by performers from Pyongyang's state-run artistic troupes at next month's Winter Olympics in the South.

While the South Korean government usually keeps the defections of ordinary North Koreans secret out of concern for the safety of family members in the North, it held an official press briefing the following day to announce the group had defected. It was described as the largest group defection since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011.

North Korea has insisted that the female employees were abducted by Seoul's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, alleging the male manager had duped them into making the journey.

Debate has since centred on whether the women travelled voluntarily to the South.

In a report on North Korean human rights submitted to the UN General Assembly in September, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, noted that some of the women might not have agreed to defect.

In Tuesday's face-to-face talks, in addition to North Korea's participation in next month's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Seoul called for the holding of Red Cross talks to discuss ways to resume the family reunions as well as inter-military talks, which it originally proposed in July last year.

While North Korea agreed to send a high-level delegation to the Olympics and hold talks with Seoul to ease military tensions, it balked at resuming the reunions, last held in October 2015.

The North has reportedly made the return of the 12 workers as well as another citizen named Kim Ryon Hui a precondition for resuming the family reunions since June last year.