July 30, 2018 10:35
South Korea's National Human Rights Commission will probe the murky defection of 12 North Korean restaurant workers from China back in April 2016.
The aim is to determine whether the North Koreans defected of their free will or were coerced by the South Korean National Intelligence Service, as some reports have suggested.
The South Korean government says they defected of their own accord, but their former manager has been giving conflicting accounts of the women's suspiciously smooth escape.
The NHRC said Sunday that it decided to investigate without a complaint from victims, which normally triggers investigations.
It will allocate six investigators to the case. Only a few of the women have been interviewed, but the commission intends to talk to all of them. Investigators will also question the National Intelligence Service and Unification Ministry, which are believed to have been involved in the operation, as well as the Foreign Ministry.
An NHRC official said, "We decided to launch an ex-officio investigation because of comments made by the UN special rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights." Tomás Ojea Quintana told reporters in Seoul earlier this month, "It's clear that there were some shortcomings in regards to how they were brought to South Korea."
He added that the defectors were "subject to some kind of deceit in regard to where they were going" and urged on the South Korean government to launch a thorough investigation.
The NHRC will spend three months probing the defection and then decide whether it needs more time. But neither the defectors nor government officials are legally bound to answer questions.
"Asking the North Korean workers whether they defected voluntarily or if they intend to return to the North could place some of them in danger as they already settled in South Korea," said Nam Sung-wook at Korea University claimed. "We need to approach this very cautiously."
An NHRC official said, "We have not decided whether to go public with the results of our probe due to the sensitive nature of the matter."
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