The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo translated a column in a Japan-based North Korean propaganda outlet Wednesday demanding the return of a group of defectors it claims were “abducted” by South Korea in 2016.
The demand that North Korean citizens who fled the repressive communist regime be returned home could signal the first of many such demands. An estimated 30,000 North Korean citizens live in South Korea, welcomed after risking their lives to escape. Due to the heavily-armed nature of the border between the two countries, most who flee North Korea escape into China, where human traffickers move them south into neighboring countries and from there send them to South Korea.
The 12 women that the Choson Silbo newspaper demanded returned to North Korea were serving as waitresses and entertainers at one of North Korea’s signature international restaurants in China in 2016 when they escaped and ultimately moved to South Korea. The restaurant manager who escaped with them, Heo Gang-il, told a South Korean television program last Friday that, when the women left the restaurant with him, they were not aware that they were leaving to South Korea. He did not state, however, that they wished to remain in North Korea, only that they were initially kept uninformed regarding their ultimate destination.
Heo claimed to be working with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. One of the women, interviewed on South Korean television anonymously, claimed that Heo threatened her into signing a document at the South Korean embassy in Malaysia stating that she was voluntarily defecting, according to the New York Post.
Chosun Ilbo notes that the North Korean media post demanding a return of the waitresses was posted on Monday, after the broadcast of the interview with Heo.
Without naming these specific defectors, Choson Sinbo reportedly stated, “the victims of an abduction, a plot to make the political use of them, should be sent immediately back.” The newspaper also demanded that families split up by the Korean War be reunited, implying that North Koreans that fled south during the war decades ago should be sent back.
Chosun Ilbo notes that this is not the first time this year that North Korea has demanded refugees from the communist country be returned home. “In high-level cross-border talks in January, North Korean delegates also demanded their return and that of another female defector from Pyongyang, identified as Kim Ryon-hi, as a precondition to resume the family reunions,” the newspaper recalls. The Japan-based North Korean outlet also mentioned Kim in their piece.
The South Korean newspaper notes that the demand for the return of these specific North Korean citizens could rapidly expand into a demand for the return of all tens of thousands of North Koreans in the South, and that some publications under Pyongyang’s control have already demanded a return of the “traitors” to be tried and executed in South Korea.
Returning North Korean defectors to their home countries is largely considered a death sentence. NGOs like Human Rights Watch, citing interviews with defectors and studies using sources with knowledge of the North Korean legal system, note that attempting and failing to flee the country often results in sentences to labor camp slavery and torture.
“North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated after fleeing their country face a real risk of torture, sexual violence and abuse, incarceration in forced labor camps, and public executions, making them refugees in need of urgent protection under international law,” Human Rights Watch reported last year. The North Korean court system defines attempting to flee the country as “treachery against the nation” and such a move can be punishable by death. Often, however, defectors caught on the way out or returned by China are instead forced into labor camps, where in addition to conducting slave labor they receive “political re-education” to force them to worship the Kim family.