North Korean restaurant staff speak out from Pyongyang for first time

Posted on : 2016-04-22 21:46 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
In a group interview, waitresses who didn’t defect say group defection was organized by manager, with S. Korean government help
Choe Hye-hong
Choe Hye-hong

In connection with a group defection to South Korea of 13 North Korean employees from the Ryukyung Restaurant in Ningbo, a city in the Zhejiang Province of China, seven women who said they had worked at the same restaurant gave a group interview to CNN in Pyongyang in which they said that the manager had tricked them and taken their coworkers to South Korea.

These remarks were part of an exclusive interview that CNN featured on its website. CNN interviewed Choe Hye-hong and six other female employees in their 20s at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang on Apr. 21.

On Apr. 7, South Korea's Unification Ministry officially announced on Apr. 7 that the 13 employees of the Ryukyung Restaurant had "defected in a group of their own free will," and this is the first time that the remaining North Korean employees have come forward to explicitly refute this story.

In a statement that the spokesperson of the central committee of the North Korean Red Cross issued immediately after the CNN report, North Korea criticized the defection as "a wicked kidnapping, abduction and forced defection."

"The North Korean employees must be given a public press conference right away so that they can receive the fair judgment of public opinion," North Korea said. "In line with the family members' ardent appeals, we will send them to Panmunjeom, or even to Seoul if need be, so that they can meet their children directly."

"In mid-March our restaurant manager gathered us together and told us that our restaurant would be moved to somewhere in Southeast Asia," said Choe, who identified herself as the head waitress at the restaurant.

The manager did not tell Choe until the last minute that the waitresses were actually going to South Korea, and she only had enough time to warn a few of the others.

Choe told CNN that the restaurant manager and a South Korean businessman organized the trip to South Korea on the instructions of the South Korean government.

"I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there," said Han Yun-hui, another waitress at the restaurant. "It tears our hearts."

In response to CNN’s inquiry about Choe’s testimony, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said, “13 defectors voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside. Following their voluntary request to defect, our government accepted them from a humanitarian point of view."

While CNN did not disclose how it had set up the interview with Choe and the six other waitresses at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, it was presumably arranged by the North Korean government.

By Lee Je-hun, staff reporter and Kim Oi-hyun, Beijing correspondent

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