North Korean workers at the Ryukyung Restaurant in Ningbo
A restaurant manager surnamed Heo, 36, who defected together with 12 female employees from a North Korean restaurant in China in early April repeated the message “Time will bring everything to light” several times in a recent telephone interview with the Hankyoreh.
This was his response every time he was asked for specifics about the reasons for the defection and the process by which it was carried out. In his first conversation, Heo said, “I have nothing to say.” But after a few instant messaging exchanges, this Hankyoreh reporter received a call late last month. Heo sounded tired and nervous.
In particular, Heo seemed focused on the 12 female staff. He referred to them as “my kids” and to the group collectively as “our house.”
“I came because of them, and I just want everything to work out for them. As for me, I could die tomorrow,” he said.
At one point, he even said, “If they prevented me from seeing my kids, I’d ask them to send me back to North Korea.”
Hankyoreh (Hani): Are you unable to see the employees?
Heo: I’m really worried about one of my kids. It makes me really angry. [I can reach all of the others, but] one of the kids has dropped off the radar.
Between Aug. 8 and 11, each of the 13 employees was released from the National Intelligence Service’s North Korean Defector Protection Center [formerly the Joint Interrogation Center]. Heo was the first to leave, while the remaining female employees came out two or three at a time. Heo appears to have tried to contact the women over the next two weeks.
Hani: Are you in contact with the others?
Heo: With some of them, I can contact them and I know where they are. I’m going to try to wait for the one who’s worried. I let [the 12 employees] know my phone number when I left [the protection center].
Hani: You mentioned someone who had “dropped off the radar.” Was this person involved in the group defection?
Heo: I don’t have anything to say about that. I have a reason I can’t talk about it. That’s an issue that will need some time to solve.
Heo seemed to feel that any plan to settle in South Korea had been thrown off balance because of the female staff. He also gave the impression that there was some connection between the employees and NIS staff, who were revealed to have been involved in the defection process.
“I recruited them all [in North Korea]. In South Korean terms, it was like the selection process of an entertainment management agency. Originally, I picked 22 to bring [to China]. Three of them I sent back because of family-related issues,” he said. Of the other 19, 12 fled with Heo in early April, while the other seven were repatriated to North Korea.
“Once we crossed the border, we all became connected like a linked chain. If any one of us breaks, everyone’s dead. That was our mindset, and we all decided to earn as much as we could and go home. . . ”
Heo’s message seemed to be that the disappearance of one of the employees had disrupted the plan to “earn as much as we could.” Heo, who referred repeatedly to the “girls” and “kids,” warned, “Once things get out later on, it may create a bigger stir.”
Hani: The South Korean government has talked about how the group defection was the result of sanctions affecting the North Korean restaurant.
Heo: What connection? That’s what we think, anyway, but it’s not what the [South Korean higher-ups] seem to think [that the defection had nothing to do with the sanctions].
Hani: They took the unusual step of revealing that you’d come to South Korea.
Heo: We came this far and they made it public. We had no idea they’d share it. We thought, why is it us they tell everyone about? It was awful at first. I try to put the best spin on it I can now. I imagine they did it for the reunification of the fatherland. Whether in the North or the South, is there anyone who can win over politics?
Heo concluded his parents in Pyongyang were probably no longer alive. “The North said I was the ringleader -- do you think they would have let the ringleader’s parents live? Did you see my name on the list of abductees [presented by North Korea, which included only the 12 female employees]? The odds they aren’t alive are 100%.”
Hani: If you expected that, why did you defect?
Heo: You don’t know how much we cried before coming here. We thought that there were so many of us, nothing would happen to our parents. It would be so great if everyone’s okay. If [my parents] are alive, it’s heaven’s work.
According to Heo, the Chinese government was unaware that the defection was being organized. “Our passports themselves were legal. Had [the Chinese government] known, we would have been caught at the airport. There are a lot of North Koreans coming and going at Chinese airports. You have to go through China to get anywhere.”
Hani: Did the other seven female employees from the original 19 want to come with you [to South Korea]?
Heo: Time will bring everything to light. It’s a matter of life and death.
By Kim Jin-cheol, staff reporter
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On Fri, Sep 2, 2016 at 4:10 PM, Matthew Crawford wrote: