North Korea offers to send families of defected group of restaurant workers to South Korea

A passport and Chinese documents held by one of the 13 North Korean restaurant workers stationed in China who participated in a successful group defection to South Korea on April 6. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Friday (April 22) offered for a second time to send to Seoul the families of a group of restaurant workers who it says were abducted to the South, state media said, after South Korea rejected the first approach.

On April 8, South Korea said 13 North Korean workers at a restaurant run by the North in China had defected, in a case it described as unprecedented. North Korea accused South Korea of a"hideous abduction".

"The families of the abductees are eagerly asking for face-to-face contact with their daughters as they were forced to part from their beloved daughters," the chairman of the North Korean Red Cross said in a statement. "At their earnest requests, our side again seriously notifies your side of our decision to send them to Seoul via Panmunjom."

Panmunjom is the inter-Korean border village on the demilitarised zone where North and South Korea hold rare joint meetings and rival soldiers stand face-to-face in the world's most heavily fortified border.

Under leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has adopted a different strategy when it comes to defectors, displaying re-defectors on national television and bringing the families of defectors to Panmunjom.

A truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed in Panmunjom in place of a peace treaty, meaning North and South Korea remain technically at war, locked in a prolonged period of exchanged rhetoric and heightened tensions.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement on Thursday in response to North Korea's first offer to send the families to the South that the defection took place according to the workers' "free will", and dismissed the offer as propaganda.

"(The offer) is unacceptable, considering their hopes, free will, and international customs concerning humanitarian issues,"the South Korean statement said.

About 29,000 people have fled North Korea and arrived in the South since the war, including 1,276 last year, with numbers declining since a 2009 peak.

In the first quarter of this year, 342 North Koreans arrived in the South.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.