Bitter row over N. Korea defectors moves to Seoul court

A woman wearing traditional costume waits for customers behind the doors of a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, China, April 12, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - Tensions between the two Koreas switched focus Tuesday to a Seoul courtroom, and a closed-door hearing on the status of a dozen North Korean defectors who Pyongyang insists were abducted.

The hearing will pit officials from South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, (NIS) against a group of human rights lawyers who contend the 12 women are being illegally detained.

All 12 were waitresses at a North Korean-run restaurant in China who arrived in the South in April, making headlines as the largest group defection in years.

While Seoul insists they escaped of their own free will, Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by NIS agents and has waged a campaign through its state media for their immediate return.

The campaign has included emotional video interviews with the women's relatives in the North, angrily denouncing the South Korean authorities and demanding a meeting with the defectors.

Seoul has rejected all such advances and insists the women are being held incommunicado for their own protection while they go through a resettlement process.

For all North Korean defectors, life in the South begins with intensive NIS interrogation which can last for months and is aimed at weeding out possible spies.

They are then given three months in a government centre where they learn basic survival skills, such as riding the subway, using a mobile phone and buying goods in a supermarket.

Tuesday's court hearing was ordered at the request of a liberal South Korean legal association called Lawyers for a Democratic Society, who managed to obtain power-of-attorney from the defectors' families in the North.

The court had ordered the 12 waitresses to appear in person, but the NIS said they were unwilling to testify because of personal safety concerns and would be represented by legal counsel.

As well as challenging the NIS version of events surrounding the defection, the Lawyers for a Democratic Society said they would push the court to allow direct access to the women.

Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.

But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered "loyal" to the regime.

The South Korean government estimates that Pyongyang rakes in around $10 million every year from about 130 restaurants it operates - with mostly North Korean staff - in 12 countries, including neighbouring China.

There have been reports of staff not being paid, with restaurants pressured into increasing their regular remittances to Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, South Korea announced that another three waitresses from a separate restaurant in China had arrived in Seoul after defecting.