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(LEAD) N. Korea's media ramp up calls for repatriation of 12 restaurant workers

All Headlines 10:56 July 20, 2018

(ATTN: ADDS unification ministry's response in last 2 paras)

SEOUL, July 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's media on Friday ramped up their calls for South Korea to repatriate its restaurant workers who defected here years ago, saying that any delay in resolving the issue could negatively affect inter-Korean relations.

Twelve North Korean women had been working at a restaurant in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo and came to the South in April 2016. The group defection has been causing controversy amid claims that some of them were duped into coming to the South.

"If our female citizens' repatriation issue is not resolved as quickly as possible, it could serve as an obstacle not just to the planned reunions of separated families between the two Koreas but also to the overall inter-Korean relations," said Uriminzokkiri, the North's external propaganda website.

The website claimed that those workers were coerced into the South and sending them back would be a "touchstone" by which the Seoul government's commitment to carrying out the April inter-Korean summit agreement can be tested.

"We will closely watch what action the South Korean government will take," it said.

Meari, another North Korean propaganda website, also claimed that the North Korean workers were "kidnapped," saying that a failure in resolving the issue could hamper inter-Korean relations, including the planned family reunion event.

Controversy flared up over those workers in May when a local cable broadcaster aired an interview with a restaurant manager who said he tricked them into defecting and that South Korea's spy agency was involved in the process.

The Seoul government has claimed that the North Korean women defected to the South of their own will. The North has demanded their immediate return.

South and North Korea are currently preparing to hold reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's east coast next month, an event in line with the agreement their leaders reached in a historic summit in April.

The North had frequently cited the return of the restaurant workers as a precondition for resuming family reunions, which have not been held since 2015.

Seoul's unification ministry declined to provide a response to the North Korean media reports but made it clear that the leaders of the two Koreas agreed in their April summit to hold the humanitarian event.

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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