- North Korean restaurant manger Ho Kang-il and 12 of his female employees defected to South Korea in 2016.
- He and his staff were working at a state-run North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China in 2016 before they flew to South Korea.
- South Korean officials have said the group defected voluntarily, but Ho claims they were blackmailed.
- Pyongyang demanded that he and his staff return to the country, claiming they were abducted by South Korean intelligence.
A North Korean defector who flew to South Korea in 2016 now claims that he and 12 of his female staff members were blackmailed into doing so by Seoul’s intelligence services.
Ho Kang-il, a former restaurant manager from North Korea, claims that he and his employees were “threatened” into defecting by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
Ho and his staff were working at a state-run North Korean restaurant in the Chinese port city of Ningbo at the time.
South Korean officials had previously said the group defected voluntarily.
“Originally, I was a cooperator of the NIS and brought information to them,” Ho said in an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “They threatened that unless I come to the South with the employees, they would divulge to the North Korean Embassy that I had cooperated with the NIS until then.”
Ho told Yonhap that South Korean officials “lured” him into the country with promises of obtaining citizenship and said he could run a restaurant in Southeast Asia, which would be “used as an NIS hideout.”
He said that he and his staff had gotten on an aeroplane thinking they would be going to a restaurant in Southeast Asia, but once they boarded they learned they were headed for South Korea.
Questions surrounding the restaurant manager’s defection were first raised after he took part in a public interview in May.
Pyongyang demanded that he and his staff return to the country, claiming they were abducted by South Korean intelligence.
The United Nations has called for a “thorough” investigation into the situation.
“It is clear that there were some shortcomings in regards to how they were brought to South Korea,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.
He said that some defectors told him they were taken to South Korea without knowing that is where they were going.
Ho has also claimed that South Korean officials publicly disclosed his and his staff’s defection status without their consent, and their family in North Korea suffered in the aftermath.
He said that he wants to return to North Korea, but first the “truth must be uncovered.”
Despite Ho’s claims, South Korea’s Unification Ministry has repeated its stance that the defectors came to the country voluntarily.
The 2016 defections would have taken place when South Korea’s president was Park Geun-hye.
Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison last year after being charged with abuse of power, bribery, coercion, and leaking government secrets.
Approximately 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South in the last 20 years, according to the South Korean government.
In 2004, North Korea accused the South of abducting its citizens after 468 North Koreans were airlifted from Vietnam.
South Korean officials said the North Koreans had fled their country into China, then travelled to Vietnam.
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