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(LEAD) Military intelligence agency behind N.K. restaurant workers' defection: source

All Headlines 15:00 July 17, 2018

(ATTN: CORRECTS state spy agency's name in 2nd para; ADDS gov't response in last 3 paras)

SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's military intelligence agency masterminded the controversial defection of a dozen North Korean restaurant workers based in China, an informed source said Tuesday.

The Defense Intelligence Command, affiliated with the defense ministry, led the 2014 operation supported by the National Intelligence Service, according to the source privy to North Korea issues.

The 12 waitresses working at the Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningpo, a city in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, defected to the South in April 2016, along with a manager, reportedly via Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur.

In an unusual move, the South's authorities immediately released the news of the massive defection case just days ahead of general elections.

"The Defense Intelligence Command led this case at the early stage" until their relocation to Shanghai, the source said. "I was told that the National Intelligence Agency was involved in the process in which they sneaked out of Shanghai, moved to a third country and entered South Korea."

North Korean restaurant workers arrive in South Korea in this file photo. (Yonhap)

The military command has its own agents operating in China but apparently lacks logistical capabilities to handle such an overseas operation.

The South's government said the defectors made their own decisions to defect here.

But the North argued that they were abducted against their will in a dirty scheme.

During his recent trip here, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, interviewed two of the restaurant workers.

In a press conference, he described the interviewees as "victims" of a scam, quoting them as saying they did not know where they were going at the time of the defection.

The manager, named Ho Kang-il, also told Yonhap News Agency later that agents at the National Intelligence Service lured him to defect to the South.

He claimed it promised to help him open a restaurant in a Southeast Asian nation and work with the waitresses, but the spy agency didn't make good on it.

Asked about the new allegation that the military body pulled strings, the defense ministry refused to comment.

"It's a defector-related matter. You can make an inquiry to the Ministry of Unification, which handles it," the ministry's spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said at a press briefing. "We have nothing to tell you at this moment."

The unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs kept mum on the issue as well.


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