SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Saturday reiterated its demands for South Korea to send back 12 North Korean restaurant workers who came to the South in 2016, saying such a move would demonstrate Seoul’s willingness to improve relations.
The statement by North Korea’s Red Cross came a week after Seoul said it would look more closely into the circumstances surrounding the women’s arrival following a media report that suggested some of them might have been brought to the South against their will.
Earlier in the week, North Korea canceled a high-level meeting with the South over U.S.-South Korean military exercises and threatened to call off a planned summit between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump.
The cancellation cooled what had been an unusual flurry of diplomatic moves from Pyongyang following a provocative year of nuclear and missile tests.
Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a historic summit on April 27 where they issued a vague vow for the “complete denuclearization” of their peninsula and pledged permanent peace. More substantial discussions over the North’s nuclear weapons are expected between Kim and Trump in a meeting planned for June 12 in Singapore.
The North’s Red Cross accused South Korean officials of evading responsibility and betraying the spirit of last month’s inter-Korean summit.
It said Seoul should “severely punish those involved in the case, send our women citizens to their families without delay and thus show the will to improve the North-South ties.”
Seoul had previously said it sufficiently confirmed the women’s free will in escaping from the North and resettling in the South. North Korea had been accusing South Korea of abducting the women, who were working in China.
Television network JTBC aired an interview earlier this month of a man it said was the manager of a restaurant in China where the women had been working. The man, who’s now also in South Korea, said he carried out the escape under plans arranged by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and that the women were brought along without knowledge of where they were going.
JTBC also interviewed four women who it said were among the group that arrived in the South. They said they didn’t know where they were headed to until they reached the South Korean Embassy in Malaysia and that they wish to see their parents again.
When the restaurant workers arrived in 2016, South Korea’s then-conservative government said they represented the largest group defection by North Koreans to the South since Kim took power in 2011. Later in 2016, South Korea rejected a highly unusual overture by the North to temporarily send the restaurant workers’ relatives to the South to meet with them.
South Korea’s liberal government, elected last year, has reached out to North Korea in recent months in attempting to settle the international standoff over the North’s nuclear program.