North Korean Waitresses Who 'Escaped' Say They Were Actually Kidnapped by South

A dozen North Korean waitresses and their male manager who were praised for a daring escape from their government have claimed they didn't flee at all—instead, they were forcefully taken in a plot hatched by rival, U.S.-backed South Korea.

In April 2016, Heo Kang-il led 12 female workers from his North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo to South Korea, where Seoul's Unification Ministry reported them as having defected freely. North Korea quickly claimed they were kidnapped, however, this was widely dismissed on the outside as propaganda. But last night, on South Korean television, Heo himself admitted that the women were unaware they were being sent to South Korea and that the whole operation had been orchestrated by him and South Korea's spy agency.

"It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead," Heo told TV channel JTBC on Thursday, as translated by The New York Times.

At least three of the women also appeared on the program with their names withheld and their faces blurred. One of the trio said "I want to go home because living like this is not the life I wanted," adding, "I miss my parents."

A reflection of a North Korean waitress is seen inside the Song Tao Garden restaurant as the lights are seen on the Friendship Bridge (behind) which connects Sinuiju and the Chinese border city of Dandong in China's northeast Liaoning province. North Korean restaurant staff abroad are reportedly selected from the higher ranks of society. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images

The alleged defection was particularly notable because the manager and waitresses in question were all reportedly members of North Korea's elite. Heo told JTBC that he had become increasingly disillusioned with his home country, especially in the wake of Jang Song Thaek's execution. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father's death in 2011, had Jang, his own uncle and close member of his father's inner circle, put to death for alleged treachery in 2013.

The move was widely seen as a power play by Kim, the third and youngest of his family to rule the country. Kim asserted his mandate by purging older elites who he felt were skeptical of his elite, especially those who were close to China. Heo said he felt his own position threatened and, while running the restaurant in China, Heo claimed he made contact with South Korea's National Intelligence Service in a rundown Shanghai motel in December 2014. He reportedly pledged his allegiance to a South Korean flag and began his new career as a spy.

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Heo took on this role for about a year and a half before being someone found out and threatened to expose him, according to his testimony. When he asked to defect, Heo said the National Intelligence Service instructed him to bring his staff with him in an operation approved by then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye—or else be outed to the North Korean Embassy. Heo recalled being promised rewards and recognition for his service, and agreed, flying himself and the women to Malaysia, where they entered the South Korean Embassy and switched sides in a more than seven-decade conflict that has far outlasted the Cold War itself.

The problem is the women say they had no idea what was going on. According to Thursday's interviews, the waitresses only grew suspicious when Heo hailed a taxi to the South Korean embassy and by then it was too late. Heo allegedly threatened to tell North Korean authorities that the women had enjoyed South Korean films.

"I blackmailed them and told them to make a choice: 'If you return home, you die, and if you follow me, you live,'" Heo told JTBC as translated by The Times. "I am now remorseful for what I did."

A chart shows North Korean defections to South Korea by year. While North Korean supreme leader has cracked down on dissent, he's also pursued moderate reforms in an attempt to stimulate his rigid economy, which has been increasing stifled by sanctions. South Korean Ministry of Unification/Reuters

Once inside, all 13 signed statements claiming they were defecting of their own free will. These documents and the new testimonies are currently being investigated by the South Korean Ministry of Unification. Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun conceded that, at the time, the ministry declared the defection voluntary purely based on information transmitted by the National Intelligence Service.

"Some of the former North Korea restaurant workers have allegedly made new claims regarding the motive and free will behind their escape. The correctness of the report needs to be verified," Baik said in a statement Friday, according to South Korea's official Yonhap News Agency.

North Korea and South Korea have long accused each other of kidnapping one another's citizens. Out of the tens of thousands of North Koreans to defect to South Korea, several hundred are believed to have returned as "double defectors," while Seoul only recognizes 13 such cases. Last year, after Kim debuted his country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles, he reportedly refused to open talks with South Korea unless the issue of the manager and his 12 workers was discussed.

The latest twist in the drama of the North Korean restaurant staff comes as South Koreans are viewing their nuclear-armed northern neighbor and its leader in a more positive light due to ongoing inter-Korean peace talks. According to a poll released late last month by South Korea's MBC News, over 78 percent of South Koreans view Kim as "trustworthy."