A group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers who defected from China to South Korea earlier this year have been released.
According to South Korean officials, twelve women and one man had now begun the formal process of resettlement in South Korea.
The group defected in April from a North Korean state-run restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo.
At the time Seoul said the size of the defection was “unprecedented” and held them for further investigation.
Most North Korean defectors are first held at an interrogation facility to screen for potential spies and then put through a state resettlement program for three months, the AFP news agency reports.
However, in this case the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said it held the workers in “protective custody” because the case was very high profile. It added that North Korea was using the case for propaganda by claiming the female workers had been abducted by Seoul’s spy agency.
The thirteen defectors left a halfway house on August 11, local media reports said. Seoul’s Unification Ministry merely confirmed they had been released but did not give more details.
The release comes just one day after a diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London was reported to have defected and fled abroad with his family.
Thae Yong Ho had served as deputy to the ambassador and was responsible for promoting the image of his country to British audiences.
The group of restaurant workers all left China by legal means on April 6, a Chinese spokesman confirmed after the defection. Unlike many defectors, they all had valid travel documents.
The restaurant was reportedly in Ningbo, in China’s north-eastern province of Zhejiang.
North Korea runs some 130 restaurants in other countries which provide a much-needed source of income.
The North Korean staff is thought to be handpicked from families loyal to the state.
South Korea is holding a rare hearing into the detention of 12 North Koreans who defected to the South.
A group of human rights lawyers – Lawyers for a Democratic Society – who requested the hearing want to determine whether South Korea’s continuing detention of the women is legal.
The North Koreans, who worked as waitresses at a North Korea-run restaurant in China, arrived in Seoul in April.
Seoul said they came of their own free will, while Pyongyang maintains they were abducted.
The hearing will not be public and it is unclear if the women will be present to give their testimony, but it could set a precedent for how South Korea deals with the hundreds of defectors it receives every year.
The defectors have not spoken in public and the South Korean government has indicated that they don’t want to.
Some of their relatives and friends in North Korea have given interviews. According to the Associated Press which has a bureau in Pyongyang, Ri Gum-suk, the mother of one of the workers, So Kyong-ah, said all the parents were heartbroken.
Her husband, So Thae-song told AP: “They say our children defected, making their own free decision, but then why don’t they put our children in front of us parents? I want to hear the words from my lovely daughter. Why don’t they let her meet us? They say they defected willingly as a group. I can’t accept this”.
According to the AP, the interviews were unforced though the interviewees may well have been rehearsed by the authorities in Pyongyang.
The usual procedure when North Koreans defect to South Korea is for them to be accommodated in special centers.
They are questioned by the intelligence service to ascertain whether they are spies, and they are also given courses in how to negotiate life in South Korea – how to get a job, how to use a bank account, etc.
Many North Korean defectors find the transition hard. Suicide rates among defectors are higher than among the general population.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society says it “strives to further the development of democracy in Korea through litigation, research, and investigation”.
The group says it is “dedicated to increasing public awareness and collaborating in joint activities to protect basic human rights and attain social justice”.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society has more than 900 members who are prominent lawyers.
It is fair to say that they are not naturally sympathetic to the current right-of-centre government but their prime concern is the protection of democratic rights.
According to South Korean media, the group of lawyers obtained power-of-attorney from the defectors’ families in North Korea for the hearing.
About a thousand people defect every year from North Korea. The number has fallen in recent years as North Korea’s economy has improved.
Most get over the porous border with China and the indications are that the Chinese authorities are more lenient than they used to be.
These waitresses had visas to be in China because they were working openly there, so the usual argument of the Beijing authorities – that they should simply be returned to North Korea as illegal migrants – didn’t hold.