About two months after fleeing their oppressive homeland, 12 former workers of a North Korean restaurant in China on Tuesday faced a legal debate over the legitimacy of their stay here under state protection.
The Seoul Central District Court opened a hearing to review a request by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, better known as Minbyun, to determine whether the 12 had defected on their own free will and thus whether the government's current holding of them is lawful.
The liberal lawyers' association has lodged a petition for habeas corpus, raising the need to clear a flurry of questions surrounding the mass exodus, after securing power of attorney from the exiles' families via a US national residing in China.
The Unification Ministry's unprecedented announcement of the defection, made just days ahead of the April 13 general election, stoked rumours that the National Intelligence Service had orchestrated the escape with a political intention, and that some of them were on the run without even knowing their destination.
Pyongyang also claims that the new arrivals were "lured and kidnapped" by South Korean agents and demands their repatriation.
The spy agency has declined the association's appeal to meet with them at their shelter, saying the restaurant servers had volunteered to come.
Yet controversy is simmering as the court issued a summons to the 12 people, fueling concerns over their safety and that of their family members left behind in the North.
Park Young-sik, an attorney recommended by the Korean Bar Association to represent the NIS, said in a recent media interview that he carried out one-on-one interviews with the 12 on May 14, during which none of them agreed to meet with Minbyun members or expressed their wish to return to their home country.
During the hearing, Park reiterated that the defectors will never actually have to show up at the court, given the safety concerns, and that the judge gave a consent to such a method, the lawyers said.
But Minbyun attorneys argue that the refugees' identities and backgrounds including the location of their onetime workplace have already been exposed following the government's announcement.
With the defectors being absent, the hearing ended some two hours later.
Minbyun filed a petition for recusal, taking issue with the judge's changed stance on summoning the defectors and his ban on any audio or written recording. They claimed such regulations violated public trial rules.
"The justice changed his mind and said he would make his ruling today without listening to the restaurant workers," Minbyun attorney Chae Hee-joon told reporters after the session.
"That means his verdict would solely reflect what the NIS says, despite their families' different claims, which we believe could not make a legitimate trial."
The proceedings will be on hold until the local court conducts a review on Minbyun's application.
In another development, the NIS has decided to have the group remain in their current residence instead of sending them to Hanawon resettlement centre, a Unification Ministry official said, citing the special nature of their getaway, safety jitters and Pyongyang's ongoing propaganda offensive against them.
The agency had taken similar steps in past cases involving high-profile fugitives.
Government officials regretted Minbyun's move and the judiciary's decision, arguing the defectors cannot be subject to habeas corpus relief because their stay at its protective facility is guaranteed by the North Korean Refugee Protection and Settlement Support Act.
"The whole point is to define what the government did right or wrong, which is important and I understand that, but there are lots of unnecessary problems in the way (Minbyun) is doing it especially in terms of the defectors' involvement," the ministry official said on customary condition of anonymity.
"The process is taking place within an established framework, but I'm not sure if the judiciary can interfere with the administration's work like this."
Ruling party officials and defector and conservative groups took a harder line, accusing the progressive association of only bolstering the Kim Jong-un regime's logic while "criminalizing" Seoul's efforts to embrace North Korean asylum-seekers and improve human rights in the communist country.
The North has recently been staging a media blitz, releasing interviews with the defectors' families and letters it claims to have been written by them, some of which called South Korean authorities "barbarian" captors.
"If the defectors' identities and testimonies are made public, their remaining families could be in great danger," ruling Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Chung Jin-suk said during a meeting at the National Assembly earlier in the day.
"The defectors had risked their lives on their own free will to come here. Minbyun, which calls for putting them on the stand, is being manipulated by North Korea. … What kind of country are those lawyers from?"
A constitution study group within the Saenuri, led by Assembly deputy speaker Rep. Shim Jae-cheol, also issued a statement Tuesday criticising Minbyun and calling on the judiciary to reconsider its request for the defectors to appear in the court.