North Korea threatens revenge after 13 workers 'abducted' by the South

North Korea
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 5/04/16, 09:08 am

While North Korea plays the aggressor on the world stage, nabbing headlines for unauthorized nuclear tests, the secretive, totalitarian regime also is claiming a victim’s role, accusing South Korea of kidnapping 13 of its citizens. Officials in Pyongyang this week decried the disappearance of a dozen waitresses and their manager, all of whom were working at a North Korean-run restaurant in China. 

South Korean officials rejected the kidnapping claim, saying the workers willingly defected. North Korea is using the incident to ratchet up tension on the divided peninsula. 

“Unless [South Korean government agents] apologize for the hideous abduction and send those abductees back, they will face unimaginable serious consequences and severe punishment,” said a spokesman for the North’s Red Cross Society, according to an official North Korean news agency. 

Earlier this week, in response to Pyongyang’s threat of retaliation, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry announced it would tighten security at foreign embassies and diplomatic missions. 

“We are on alert for the possibility that the North may try to abduct our citizens or conduct terrorist acts abroad,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman, Jeong Joon-hee, told reporters.

This fresh round of accusatory ping pong between Pyongyang and Seoul started in early April when South Korean authorities said they welcomed 13 defectors from the North. Ever since, North Korean officials have issued reams of statements threatening vengeance unless the workers are returned.

On Tuesday, North Korean officials produced the waitresses’ family and colleagues and recorded a statement for international media claiming the women were tricked into going to South Korea. They allegedly thought they were being transferred to another restaurant in Malaysia. One of the waitresses who stayed behind claimed she overheard her manager talking to a man from the South Korean National Intelligence Service as she and her colleagues were being loaded on the bus for departure. 

North Korea operates a chain of 130 restaurants in 12 countries, dishing up traditional cuisine to international patrons, many of whom are South Korean tourists curious about the heavily barricaded North. Some critics claim the restaurants are linked to the nefarious “Room 39,” a special North Korean office known for drug smuggling and money laundering for Kim Jong Un’s government. But since January, when North Korea began launching nuclear missile tests, the nation has come under renewed scrutiny and United Nation sanctions. 

“As the international community has slapped sanctions on the North, North Korean restaurants in foreign countries are known to be feeling the pinch,” Jeong Joon-hee told South Korean news agency Yonhap, according to a recent report in The Guardian. “North Koreans in overseas restaurants are believed to be under heavy pressure to send money to their country,” he added.

Defections are a sore subject for the Koreas. In the six decades since the Korean War ended, more than 29,000 North Koreans have fled to the South. It is rare for South Koreans to defect to the impoverished, authoritarian North. According to a recent Reuters report, 1,276 North Koreans arrived in the South last year, and defection rates for the first quarter of 2016 round out at about 114 a month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD correspondent.

 

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