Inquiry Weighs If NIS Aided the North Korean Group Defection
South Korea’s NIS
Over the course of years, the doubt and suspicion had faded away, and a man’s presence now encouraged a surprising openness for these North Korean waitresses in China. In his steady and good-natured voice, he sympathetically depicts their shut-away life. Their shoulders shrug modestly, as if weighed down by the bitter experiences of disillusionment. The man continues to engender the bad faith of a long-disgruntled life in the North. He, later identified as an agent of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (hereinafter “NIS”), then, instructs them that they could defect to the South; he gives them a wad of cash for a getaway.
The narrative played out above is a figment of imagination and may make up for a riveting political thriller. But, like a slap on the wrist, some may actually be non-fiction, and may have found new relevance in a cryonic rhetoric between the two Koreas over defectors: the North accusing abductions guised as voluntary entry by the South, and the South alleging no improper role.
In April 7, 2016, a group of 12 waitresses, together with their male manager, deserted their North Korean government-run restaurant in Ningbo, China and defected to South Korea. But what had seemed like any other clean-cut defection story at first soon proved more confusing than expected:
A typical defector seeking entry to South Korea requires security clearances, which could take weeks or months. By contrast, the defectors’ passage occurred rather speedily, and they arrived in Seoul the day after they fled their restaurant in China.
Also, in a break with precedent, the South Korean government announced the defectors’ arrival in an emergency press briefing. Interestingly, the timing of their arrival worked fortuitously for the ruling party within days of the general election on April 13, by controlling the national conversation.
The North immediately hurled accusations of kidnapping the women at the NIS. The South brushed aside any speculation that managed to bubble up as nothing but empty threats and propaganda intended to strike fear.
In addition, instead of being sent first to the North Korean Defector Protection Center to screen out for potential spies, they remained under NIS custody, kept incommunicado and interrogated without counsel. Any attempt by a South Korean human rights group, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, to provide legal help was met with a pattern of stonewalling effort by the NIS.
However, the recent revelations leading up to and circumstances surrounding their arrival may bafflingly place them beyond the reach of anything but usual.
“They purchased tickets for their flight from Shanghai to Malaysia with 60,000 RMB [a currency worth about $8,980] that this individual provided them,” a knowledgeable source about the group defection told the Hankyoreh, a South Korea daily newspaper, in an article dated on September 3, 2016.
The source explained, “This person, who was a NIS agent, told them that they could escape by way of another country. They say that this person also frequently visited the NIS’s North Korean Defector Protection Center.”
The defectors’ passage through Malaysia occurred in a fairly swift manner. “The group of defectors landed at the airport in Malaysia and then entered the South Korean Embassy. The very same day, they headed to the airport, reportedly under an escort of 30 or so people who appeared to be Malaysian special forces. I’ve heard that their South Korean passports had been prepared and that they boarded the plane at the airport without going through customs,” the source said.
Furthermore, the male manager, in an interview with the Hankyoreh, said “The NIS repeatedly said that Lawyers for a Democratic Society were “North Korean sympathizers” and “bad people,” and the women feared retaliation if they talk to them.”
Whether the NIS agent aided and abetted in facilitating the escape has not been verified; whether the timing of their arrival was deliberate or coincidental has not been confirmed; and there is nothing affirmative to suggest that this is a chilling conspiracy at the highest levels of government.
But if these allegations survive, then its sophistication and impunity by which the NIS operate may stun and exhaust all once more. Three years ago, the NIS came under heavy fire for its role in fabricating conspiratorial narratives by building a false spy charge against a defector; the past still haunts and looms large.