SEOUL—For two years, Kim Jong Un’s regime has demanded the return of a group of North Koreans who defected from the restaurant in China where they worked, claiming they were tricked into leaving and taken to South Korea against their will by Seoul’s spies.
Now, the fate of the 12 female waitresses and one male manager has become an unexpected flashpoint as the two Koreas seek to sustain a monthslong diplomatic detente that has shown signs of unraveling.
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Following a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, President Trump suggested that a planned summit between the U.S. and North Korea could be delayed. Gerald F. Seib explains why. Photo: Getty Images
In the past few days, the North has stepped up calls for the South to hand over the defectors, asserting again Wednesday that they were abducted. That claim appeared to be given some credibility when a South Korean television station broadcast an interview with four of the waitresses earlier this month. One of them said she didn’t know that she was going to South Korea and thought she was simply being moved to a different housing facility.
The defectors’ precise location is unknown, and neither they nor the owner of the restaurant in Ningbo, China, where they worked could be reached for comment. But the dispute over their fate shows the sorts of concessions North Korean officials are seeking from the South as the price of keeping the inter-Korean rapprochement on track.
South Korea’s left-leaning government has said it won’t return the workers. On Wednesday, a Unification Ministry spokeswoman said the government’s stance hasn’t changed and it has no plans to send them back because they are South Korean citizens.
Activists, rights groups and defectors in the South worry, though, that Seoul’s desire to sustain the improvement in relations with Pyongyang—in which President Moon Jae-in has been a driving force—might prompt officials to reverse course. On Saturday, protesters rallied outside South Korean government buildings.
“We will not just sit by and watch the North Korean women workers be sent into Kim Jong Un’s hands,” said a protester from one of the groups, Fighters for Free North Korea.
Sending the North Koreans home would be an extraordinary move, though not entirely unprecedented. South Korea in the past has repatriated North Koreans who expressed a desire to return, such as fishermen rescued after drifting into South Korean waters. In the 1990s and early 2000s, South Korea deported North Korean spies imprisoned in the South, who were hailed as heroes by Pyongyang on their return.
But returning defectors to a country where they could face imprisonment or worse would be a serious human-rights violation, said Yoon Pyung-joong, a professor of political philosophy at Hanshin University in South Korea. “If the government sends the defectors back to the North, it would be a violation of their right to freedom of residence and the right to be protected by the government, which are all constitutional rights.”
Complicating matters, Pyongyang has made the return of the restaurant workers a precondition for resuming reunions for families separated by the Korean War—a humanitarian priority for the Seoul administration. The South’s presidential Blue House declined to comment on the implications for family reunions, referring questions to the Unification Ministry.
Meanwhile, six South Korean nationals are believed to be held by North Korea. At a summit meeting of the North’s and South’s leaders last month, Mr. Moon asked Mr. Kim for their release, according to Mr. Moon’s spokesman.
Pyongyang’s campaign to get its citizens back comes as the thaw in cross-border ties looks increasingly shaky, following a string of angry denunciations of the U.S. and South Korea by the North’s state media.
Last week, North Korea called the South Korean government “ignorant and incompetent,” threatened to pull out of a planned June 12 summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, and canceled high-level talks with Seoul officials.
North Korean defectors shout slogans during a rally in Seoul, South Korea, against the repatriation of North Korean restaurant workers to North Korea, May 19. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press
In a Saturday statement on the restaurant workers, Pyongyang said it would “prudently watch the further attitude” of South Korea. And in what was likely a veiled reference to family reunions, the North warned Seoul that how it handled the demand for the workers’ return “would have great impact on deciding the prospect” of humanitarian issues.
Then, on Tuesday, North Korea’s state media ran a commentary demanding that South Korea silence defectors who distributed leaflets critical of the Kim regime.
“If the north-south relations face a grave difficulty again owing to the provocation of human scum, the blame for it will be entirely on the south Korean authorities. They must know what price they will be made to pay,” the commentary said, using the North’s traditional lowercase ‘s’ when describing the South.
There are about 31,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, according to the Unification Ministry. The number fleeing the North has fallen in recent years as the regime has stepped up security along its border with China.
Pyongyang has used hostages as leverage in past international negotiations. Last year, North Korea barred Malaysian diplomats from leaving until Malaysia’s government agreed to release North Koreans suspected of involvement in the killing of Mr. Kim’s half brother at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Write to Andrew Jeong at email@example.com