N. Korean families plead for return of restaurant workers who defected

Story highlights

  • In April, most of the serving staff of a North Korean restaurant in China defected en masse
  • CNN spoke exclusively to the family members of three of the defectors

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN)In April, news of a spectacular defection rippled through the media.

Most of the serving staff of a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China, had defected en masse.
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    Twelve young North Korean women who worked at the restaurant and a male restaurant manager arrived in the South Korean capital.
    For Seoul, it was a propaganda bonanza; for Pyongyang, a huge embarrassment.
    The North Korean Red Cross was quick to challenge South Korea's version of events, calling the defections instead "a mass abduction."

    A highly orchestrated event

    On the CNN crew's last day in Pyongyang after covering the recent Workers' Party congress, authorities here brought family members of three restaurant employees who went to Seoul in front of the network's cameras.
    It was a highly orchestrated event.
    We were told once arriving in North Korea that "special exclusive coverage" was planned for us, but there was no hint about what it would be until two hours before the interview.
    North Korean authorities have told the families that their daughters and sisters are being kept in solitary confinement and have been cut off from outside information.
    The young women have purportedly become sick after a hunger strike demanding they be returned home, but Pyongyang hasn't disclosed how it acquired such reports.
    South Korea's Ministry of Unification told CNN that allegations that the girls are in solitary confinement or conducting a hunger strike are "completely untrue."
    It said the girls will stay in government custody for several months while adjusting to life in South Korea.
    But Ri Bun sobbed as she told us how she believes her sister is being treated.
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    "Even now my sister is suffering in the accursed South Korea, starving and unconscious. When I think of that I lie awake frightened and cannot sleep.
    "Those South Korean puppet criminals, I want to tear them to pieces!"
    These families cannot comprehend how someone they know so well could run away to the hated South.
    They said they believe the women were duped into going, told they were being relocated to another government-run North Korean restaurant in Malaysia.
    "I curse and condemn the South Korean puppet forces who allured and abducted our daughters," said Ri Gun Suk, the mother of the youngest of the defecting waitresses.
    "To say that our daughter, who was so kind and had so much respect for her father, I could never believe such nonsense."

    Mother: 'This is an abduction, not a free act'

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    The North Korean Red Cross has demanded that the families be allowed to meet their daughters at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas -- something to which South Korea has said it will not agree.
    "This is an abduction, not a free act. It's a kidnapping," said another mother, Kim Hae Sun.
    "But even if she really went of her own accord, all of us mothers want to meet their daughters to know if they are alive. Why do they lock them up and not let us meet if they went (of) their own free will?"
    The emotions are real, whatever coaching or instructions these people may have received and whatever unseen levels of organization went on behind the interview.
    These families are hurting, mystified by what happened and grieving for the absence of the young women.