|Thirteen North Korean restaurant workers move to their accommodation in South Korea after defecting through Incheon International Airport in this photo taken in April 2016. / Courtesy of Ministry of Unification|
By Kim Jae-heun
There is a lack of evidence to prove the government orchestrated the 2016 mass defection of North Korean restaurant workers from China, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) has concluded.
However, the nation's human rights watchdog requested an investigation into the government's alleged violation of a relevant law, as its public disclosure of the defection could have put the employees' families in North Korea in danger.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society, better known as Minbyun here, said Monday that the NHRCK notified it of the results of its investigation into the defection case.
In April 2016, a male manager at a restaurant owned by the North Korean government in Ningbo, China, and 12 female workers came to the South, which the then Park Geun-hye administration disclosed ahead of a general election. But three of the workers claimed in a media interview that they were unaware of their destination, and the manager claimed the South Korean government officials had pressured him to come to the South.
Minbyun submitted a petition for a probe, saying the North Korean workers were brought to South Korea against their will or without their knowledge.
After investigating officials at the National Security Office in Cheong Wa Dae, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), the Ministry of Unification, the Korean National Police Agency and an army intelligence command, the NHRCK concluded it could not find objective evidence to support the manager's claim that he was forced to come to Seoul by officials of the command.
However, the watchdog added that it is also hard to agree with the then government officials' claim that the government did not intervene in the mass defections 100 percent, as they had deleted emails and audio files recorded by phone.
The intelligence command argued that audio files of the conversation between the North Korean manager and its officer were not stored, and the officer destroyed his cellphone after the phone number was leaked.
According to the written statements of the 12 North Korean workers, they seemed to be aware they were coming to Seoul, but the government did not fully confirm the workers' intention to defect, the NHRCK said.
The watchdog also concluded it was illegal for the government to disclose the defection to the public. It is very rare for the authorities to disclose a North Korean's defection because it can affect the security of the remaining family in the North.
The disclosure was not aimed at protecting national security or public interest ― the situation in which the disclosure of a defection is allowed. The NHRCK asked the prosecution to investigate the officials who were in charge at the time for possible violation of the laws on the NIS and personal information protection, including then national security adviser Kim Kwan-jin, ex-NIS chief Lee Byeong-ho and former Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo.