Among several high-profile stories which the author is closely monitoring is the so-called “case of the defected restaurant workers”. Readers may recall that on April 7, 2016, a manager and twelve waitresses of the North Korean restaurant Ryugyong in Ningbo (a city in China’s north-eastern province of Zhejiang) fled to South Korea for official reasons of “choosing freedom”. The story seemed strange enough from the outset. Suspicions soon arose that their escape was planned by the National Intelligence Service. Pyongyang has demanded the return of its citizens which even resulted in this issue being raised at high-level inter-Korean talks.
In May 2018, South Korean cable TV channel JTBC reported that restaurant manager Heo Gang-il scared the waitresses into joining him and fled to South Korea on the instructions of the National Intelligence Service. The manager admitted that he initially planned to escape alone, but following South Korean Intelligence Service threats, inclined other employees to escape with him. In exchange for such cooperation, he was promised South Korean citizenship and a restaurant in South-East Asia which he and other escapees would manage.
On May 30, at the UN office in Geneva, the representative of North Korea called on human rights bodies to investigate the circumstances of the escape. But the biggest blow to South Korea was delivered on July 10 at a press conference in Seoul given by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomás Ojea Quintana. The latter met with several former employees of the restaurant and announced that not all of them fled from China to South Korea of their own free will. Therefore, individual preferences regarding their future place of residence must be taken into account. Moreover, if the abduction is confirmed as such, it must be considered a crime.
The statement made by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea caused great resonance. On July 11, the Ministry of Unification of South Korea immediately stated that the North Korean citizens fled to the South voluntarily. At the same time, the Ministry representative refused to disclose details for fear of jeopardizing the safety of refugee families in North Korea.
North Korea’s reaction was immediate. In a comment published on July 20 on the North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri, it was stated that if the case of the restaurant employees is not resolved, it may not only create problems for conducting reunions between divided South and North Korean families, but will also jeopardize inter-Korean relations. The current situation, it reported, will be considered an indicator of South Korea’s sincerity in improving its relations with the North. A similar theme may be heard in materials published by the North Korean official newspaper Rodong Sinmun. However, Pyongyang finally decided not to interfere and go through with the reunion of families as scheduled.
Nevertheless, the Ministry of Unification confirmed that the employees of the North Korean restaurant in China were not under any pressure and their decision to flee to the South of the Korean Peninsula was voluntary. As was stated by its representative on July 30, the position of the South Korean government on the issue remains unchanged. The Ministry of Unification is currently cooperating with the National Human Rights Commission which had begun an audit on the matter.
However, things were again ruined by restaurant manager Heo Gang-il who on August 4, 2018 gave an interview to the New York Times. This time, his story was enriched with a greater number of details. It turns out that the driving force behind his escape was a Chinese-Korean customer who threatened to inform the North Korean authorities of Heo’s regular meetings with the South Korean Intelligence Service. When Heo asked South Korean Intelligence to transport him to South Korea, he was contacted by an agent on April 3 who instructed him to flee with all 19 waitresses within 48 hours. When Heo refused, the agent threatened to inform North Korean authorities of his attempted escape, but on the other hand promised to pay him millions of dollars if he went through with the plan.
Finally, Heo bought 20 plane tickets to Kuala Lumpur, and on April 5 told the waitresses that they are going to move to a different work location. Shortly before the group left the restaurant to go to the airport, five waitresses noticed something was wrong and escaped. The Chinese restaurant owner also got involved: he chased after the group in his car and rammed a taxi transporting two of the waitresses. The others continued their escape without them.
When the waitresses finally found out that they were going to the South Korean Embassy in Malaysia, they broke down in tears. Nevertheless, Heo convinced them to continue their journey to South Korea, saying that things had gone too far as they were, and if they returned to North Korea, everyone would be executed. Just before boarding the plane to Kuala Lumpur, Heo called a South Korean Intelligence Officer and heard cries of enthusiasm and applause at the other end of the line. Heo was proclaimed a hero and promised that the escape would not be covered by the media, “so as not to endanger the families of those who fled”. But the very next day, the news regarding those who “chose freedom” were trumpeted everywhere. Neither did he get the promised millions of dollars. Heo is currently forced to work in minimarkets and as a delivery service truck driver.
Of course, the attention the story provoked is closely related to the political situation. The “restaurant worker scandal” is intended to cover up the previous “comment scandal”. As regards the “military conspiracy case”, “there were reasonable suspicions” that the escape was organized by representatives of military, rather than “civilian” intelligence. Of course, the self-incrimination of the manager in his interview to U.S. media will be a hard fact to battle for South Korean authorities as they continue declaring that “everyone had fled voluntarily”.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”