By Tim Beal
On 7 April 2016, thirteen North Koreans arrived together in Seoul. According to the South Korean government, the group – a manager and 12 waitresses – had “escaped” from the North Korean Ryukyung restaurant in Ningbo, China and had voluntarily “fled to freedom.” South Korea’s Ministry of Unification spokesperson said that “the government ‘respected the defectors’ determination’ and decided to accept them all on a humanitarian level.”
Many suspected that government magnanimity was not the real story. Firstly, such a large group of North Koreans going en masse to the south was unprecedented. Moreover, despite the propaganda about North Korean workers being sent overseas as “slave labour,” such opportunities in fact are highly prized. As Andrei Lankov, no friend of the North Korean government, has pointed out, “A few years of hard work overseas is a dream destination for any North Korean worker, and competition for such jobs is stiff.” Working in a fancy restaurant in China must be high up the list. But what aroused the most suspicion about the South Korean government’s narrative was the timing of the so-called mass defection – five days before the National Assembly election. Was it an “election defection,” a present to Park Geun-hye’s ruling but struggling Saenuri Party, which was assiduously playing the traditional “North Wind” card and stoking up tension to bring in votes? In February 2016, President Park had closed the Kaesong Industrial Park, the last remaining inter-Korean project from the progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Although the international media paid little attention to the issue (in contrast to its indignation over North Korea’s alleged abductions of foreign citizens), the South Korean press, spearheaded by the liberal Hankyoreh, did. “Something fishy with government’s announcement of defections,” it editorialised and proceeded to investigate. Interesting and incriminating details soon emerged.
Firstly it was revealed that various sources in Ningbo said the restaurant manager, at that stage only identified by the initial H, had embezzled and fled with 1.5 million yuan (US$232,000). As one expert explained: “In most cases with people working at overseas North Korean businesses or in trade, their defection had to do with money issues.”
The old adage about “follow the money” also explains the case of Thae Yong Ho, the minister at the DPRK embassy in Britain who defected in August 2016. It seems that in addition to the attraction of high-living in London, there was also the cost of sending two sons through very expensive university courses. He embezzled embassy funds. With the auditors coming and he and his family scheduled to return to Pyongyang, he chose to defect. Given the challenges of living on a very low salary in high-cost environments, it is perhaps an indication of the strength of family ties and patriotism that this does not happen more frequently among North Korean diplomats abroad.
Manager H left his wife and six other waitresses behind but managed to inveigle 12 others to accompany him on the pretext that they were being deployed to another North Korean embassy in Malaysia. He is unlikely to have gone to all this trouble if it were merely a matter of skipping with the loot. The 12 waitress were apparently a gift intended for Park Geun-hye.
The Hankyoreh from the beginning of its investigation recognised that this was an operation orchestrated by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS). The group flew to Kuala Lumpur (KL), then on the same day to Incheon. The speed at which this happened was a give-away:
“When you’re traveling from a third country to South Korea, the document preparations can take quite a long time, sometimes several months,” said a man from North Korea who defected while dispatched to China. “If [the defectors] did just stop briefly in Malaysia before coming in, then it looks as though the South Korean intelligence organization had everything prepared in advance.”
When in KL, the waitresses finally realised what was happening. They found themselves at the South Korean embassy signing a declaration that they were “defecting voluntarily” and then, according to this Hankyoreh report, they were taken to the airport for the flight to Korea:
The defectors’ passage through Malaysia also occurred very quickly. “The group of defectors landed at the airport in Malaysia and then entered the South Korean Embassy. The very same day, they headed to the airport, reportedly under an escort of 30 or so people who appeared to be Malaysian special forces. I’ve heard that their South Korean passports had been prepared and that they boarded the plane at the airport without going through customs,” the source said.
The Malaysian Special Forces were there presumably to stop any of the waitresses from getting away. Their presence and the progress through the airport without going through customs suggest a very close relationship between the South Korean NIS and its Malaysian counterpart. This is highly significant, and the recent dramatic change of government in Malaysia may lead to further disclosures. It will be recalled that Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at KL airport in February 2017. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib accused North Korea of the killing, but South Korea might well be a more likely candidate. Now that Najib has been ousted and may be headed to jail, we may soon learn the truth.
Soon after the group arrived in South Korea, things went downhill. Seven waitresses who remained in China and hadn’t gone with the manager (they were out shopping when he decamped according to reports) returned to Pyongyang where they gave a tearful interview to CNN’s rather hapless Will Ripley. It’s all the fault of that bustard manager and the South Korean government, they told Ripley. Subsequently, they were proven right. Despite CNN wrapping the interview in the usual propaganda envelope – photos of marching troops and expressions of horror that North Korea makes money out of its overseas restaurants – the message of distress was palpable.
The Saenuri Party, hence Park Geun-hye, did extremely badly at the elections: Support for Pres. Park and ruling party hits lowest point since taking office. The ploy hadn’t worked but now the Park Geun-hye administration was lumbered with the 12 waitresses. It could not just let them go home; that would have been an unthinkable loss of face. The solution, perhaps the only one in the circumstances, was to keep up the pretence and try and ride out the storm — Civic activists demand truths behind mass defection was a typical headline – while keeping the waitresses under wraps.
The waitresses were kept incommunicado, unable to speak to their relatives back home nor to the local press. Efforts by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyon) to gain access to them were rebuffed and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was also unsuccessful. Amnesty International protested that the women had “no lawyers, no contact with families.”
The government tried to pretend that things were going swimmingly for the waitresses now that they had overcome the trauma of escape. In August 2016, a Unification Ministry official claimed that “the defectors have been released into South Korean society” and said that they “do not wish for their identities to be revealed or to be interviewed.” So they were “in society,” at some undisclosed location, but no one could speak to them and they, according to the South Korean government, did not wish to speak to anyone.
Then came the Candlelight Revolution that forced a change of government. The new Moon Jae-in administration should have released the North Korean women immediately. It would have been a brave gesture indicating that a new day had dawned, both in South Korean society and in relations with the North. On this, and many other fronts, Moon fumbled, perhaps to avoid confrontation with the conservative establishment or perhaps lacking in resoluteness. Opinions differ on that.
It was inevitable that the problem would not go away, but the détente of 2018 brought the abduction into the spotlight. North Korea reactivated its demand that the women be released and sent home. And in South Korea, restrictions were lifted somewhat on media access to the waitresses. JBTC, the cable TV network of the right-wing media conglomerate JoongAng Ilbo, interviewed four of the waitresses on 10 May 2018. It is clear from this interview that these four at least did not come to South Korea voluntarily. The piece ended with one of them saying:
Here, I don’t feeling like I am really living. If I had the chance, even right now, I want to return to the arms of my mother.
JTBC also interviewed the manager, now identified as Hoe Kang-il, who confirmed what had long been suspected by the liberal press and alleged by the North but denied by the South Korean government: “It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead.”
The Korea Times, which gives the managers name as Huh, revealed why he has now spilled the beans:
Huh verified their [the interviewed waitresses] remarks, saying South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) orchestrated the group defection. “An NIS agent lured me, saying then-President Park Geun-hye was waiting for me. He said a post in the NIS was confirmed for me, but the promise was never fulfilled,” Huh said.
Meanwhile Pyongyang has continued to demand the return of the abductees, and this has been linked variously to a swap with six South Koreans held in the North on charges of espionage and subversion, and to the wider question of reunions of divided families.
The problem facing the Moon administration is compounded by the likelihood that not all of the abducted women may wish to return. One was quoted as having posted on social media, “I would never go back to the North voluntarily. In such a case, please rescue me.” That may of course be fabricated, but it could also be real. Two years after the event, after a period of what used to be called brainwashing but is now called “debriefing,” along with the well-known effect of the Stockholm Syndrome whereby people develop an irrational affinity with their kidnappers, it is quite possible that some will be emotionally disoriented and may be reluctant to go home even though their life in South Korea, if the JTBC interview is anything to go by, is far from satisfactory. It would not be at all surprising that out of 12 women, one or more might be happy in any case to get away from home, from relatives and North Korea. This uncertainty leaves President Moon with a potential humanitarian problem but not an insurmountable one. Officials from South and North could surely come up with an arrangement whereby humanitarian concerns are satisfied with no loss of face on either side.
It is not clear why the Moon administration has yet to resolve the issue. The abduction can easily, and correctly, be placed on the shoulders of the NIS and Park Geun-hye. The necessity for resolving it looms large if North-South relations are going to continue to improve. One would have thought that he has enough trouble on his plate with the erratic Donald Trump. Releasing the waitresses would be presented as an act of benevolence, rectifying the crimes of Park Geun-hye, and coupling that with the exchange of the prisoners in the North and an agreement on family reunions a diplomatic coup.
What holds Moon back?
Tim Beal is a scholar who has been researching the geopolitics of Asia. He has taught on subjects ranging from Chinese politics to international marketing at universities in Britain, Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, and New Zealand. He has written numerous articles and two books focusing on the Korean peninsula – published by Pluto Press in London; North Korea: The Struggle against American Power, in 2005 and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War in 2011. He is a contributor for ZoominKorea.