Tale of North Korean waitresses who fled to South takes dark turn

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - It was the most sensational defection by North Koreans in years: In April 2016, South Korea announced that 12 young waitresses and their male manager, all members of North Korea's elite, deserted their government-run restaurant in China and fled to the South.

Now, in a tale with echoes of a spy thriller, the manager and three of the women claim that the waitresses did not even know they were going to South Korea when the manager took them out of China at the behest of the South's National Intelligence Service.

"It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead," said the manager, Heo Kang Il, during an interview on the South Korean cable channel JTBC on Thursday (May 10) night.

If true, the revelation would support North Korea's long-standing accusation that the South Korean spy agency had kidnapped its citizens.

It would also further taint the reputation of the spy agency, which has long been accused of meddling in domestic politics and fabricating espionage cases in the name of fighting the communist North.

"I want to go home because living like this is not the life I wanted," said one of the three women, who were all interviewed by JTBC. "I miss my parents."

JTBC did not reveal the names of the three women and also blurred their faces, as well as Heo's, to protect their identities.

But it showed what it said were copies of the 12 women's North Korean passports, as well as their flight reservations when they left China.

South Korea's Unification Ministry is checking "the new allegations," its spokesman, Baik Tae Hyun, said on Friday.

But Baik admitted that when his ministry announced in 2016 that the women had arrived in South Korea of their own free will, it was just relaying information it received from the intelligence agency.

The National Intelligence Service said it was "closely reviewing" the JTBC report. Until now, the agency has dismissed as North Korean propaganda allegations that the women were taken to the South against their will.

The case of the 12 women, all in their 20s or 30s, presents a thorny problem for President Moon Jae In of South Korea, who held a summit meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, last month to discuss improving ties.

Kim's government has long demanded the women's repatriation. But the South has always denied abducting North Koreans, saying that about 30,000 North Koreans who have arrived in the South since the 1990s were defectors.

The women were among tens of thousands of North Koreans working abroad who funnel badly needed foreign currency to their government.

The North selects loyal and relatively affluent citizens to send abroad as workers, and the defection of the 12 women was a major coup for Park Geun Hye, who was South Korea's president at the time and whose conservative government cited it as a sign of disillusionment with Kim among North Korean elites.

But many details of the defection remained a mystery and fueled suspicion, including how the restaurant workers managed to plot their escape despite being trained to spy on one another for signs of disloyalty.

They also arrived in South Korea only two days after they fled their restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo, in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

Other defectors usually took months to complete the trip to South Korea, often trekking through the jungles of Southeast Asia with the help of human traffickers.

Park's government also took the highly unusual step of announcing their defection the day after their arrival. But it kept their whereabouts secret and blocked human rights lawyers from meeting with them.

It also denied the North's claim that the waitresses' manager had conspired with the South Korean spy agency to take them to the South after telling them that they were being relocated to a restaurant in Southeast Asia.

But Heo says that was exactly what happened. Like other North Korean workers abroad, the women were trained to obey their manager, who held their passports.

"I just told them that we were moving to a new place," he told JTBC.

Heo said he decided to spy for the National Intelligence Service in 2014 after Kim Jong Un executed his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, on sedition and corruption charges. Heo said he became disillusioned with Kim after five of his former classmates were executed in a purge of officials close to Jang.

Heo said he met a South Korean agent in a motel in China, signed a letter of allegiance, and had his picture taken with a South Korean flag as proof that he would not betray the agency.

But his spying was exposed in 2016, and when he asked his contact at the National Intelligence Service to help him defect, the official ordered him to bring the women with him. Heo said he was promised big rewards, like a medal and a government job.

"He said this was an operation approved by President Park and everyone was waiting for me," Heo said of his contact at the intelligence agency.

"He threatened that if I did not bring the women with me, he would report me to the North Korean Embassy."

The three women interviewed by JTBC said they "never imagined" they were being taken to South Korea.

Only when they landed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Heo took them to the South Korean embassy by taxi did they realize that something had gone wrong, they said.

When they balked at entering, they said Heo threatened to tell North Korean authorities that they often watched South Korean movies in China, a serious crime for North Korean workers abroad.

"I blackmailed them and told them to make a choice: 'If you return home, you die, and if you follow me, you live,'" Heo said.

"I am now remorseful for what I did." Inside the embassy, the women signed statements that they were defecting of their own free will.

They said working in China had been their dream because they could earn in a month what they made in a year in North Korea. It was also their only chance to travel outside their isolated, impoverished country.

Now in South Korea against their will but unable to return home, they said that they have struggled to adjust, attending schools, working part-time jobs and learning to speak with a South Korean accent.

They said they hid their identities and refused until now to reveal their ordeal to avoid harming their parents in the North, where families of defectors are often treated as traitors.

"It has been so hard for me because I wanted to tell my parents that I am OK, but I can't," one woman said.

Heo said he decided to speak out because after he defected, Park was impeached and the intelligence agency never gave him the rewards it had promised. He said he also realised, after arriving in the South, that the timing of the group's defection was moved up more than a month to help rally conservative votes in parliamentary elections.

"They had me believe that this was a big patriotic operation," he said. "But they used me and then shot me in the back."