Mr. Heo Kang-il is a former Ryu Kyung restaurant manager, a North Korean restaurant located in Ningbo, China. He had led twelve women workers in a daring escape to South Korea in 2016. The flight became embroiled in a controversy, with lawyers from Minbyun organization claiming that the women had been coerced into defection by the South Korean intelligence agents. (NIS) Human rights watchdog has since found insufficient evidence to suspect government coercion. The twelve women live in South Korea now, harboring no thoughts about returning to North Korea.
Ningbo 12 NK restaurant workers defect to South Korea. 4/7/2016
Now living in exile at a third country, Mr. Heo recently contacted Liberty Korea Post with startling information. He said that two assemblymen (Pyo Chang-won and Kim Kyeong-yeop) from the ruling Minjoo Party had introduced him to the lawyers’ group called, Minbyun.
The Minbyun lawyer told Mr. Heo that he could earn a lot more money via a lawsuit against the government if he testified at a press conference that the NIS had orchestrated the defection.
In his interview with Chosun Ilbo, Heo said that he had met with a Minbyun lawyer by the name of Jang in June 2018. That was when Jang suggested the open press conference. Afterward, Jang introduced Yoon Mi-hyang to him. She was then the chairperson of JeongDaeHyeop, a non-profit organized to help comfort women. In October, they met at a vacation home in Mapo supposedly for the comfort women, along with three Minbyun lawyers, three women from the Japanese ChoChongRyun group, eleven people altogether for the dinner meeting. That was where Jang said, “If you [defectors] come out in the open and hold a press conference, the planned defection would become a bigger issue, and you can get more money.” Heo revisited the Mapo home the next day and met Kim (Yoon’s husband) for the first time.
On one December day, Kim sent a text message to Heo, “Let’s go to the country and barbeque some pork.” Heo agreed to the three-day outing and three of the Ningbo women to another vacation home belonging to JeongDaeHyeop in Anseong. Seven people awaited them at the Anseong facility.
Kim and members of the ChoChongRyun group shared their pictures of the events they had participated in North Korea, as they referred to Kim Jong-un as “the General” and “Suryong-nim” and sang revolutionary songs of North Korea. Heo and the women defectors felt strange that Kim’s group would show such affection for the North Korean dictator. When they repeatedly suggested the defectors to return to North Korea, they became alarmed.
According to Heo, nine out of twelve women were aware that they were going to South Korea, while three women followed the group without knowing. They were in contact with the NIS agents to coordinate the date of defection, but they were not forced to defect to South Korea. Minbyun lawyers and Kim tried to persuade them to say that the whole group had no knowledge of where they were going. Heo refused to abide by the request.
Attorney Jang reprimanded Heo, saying that Heo should reflect and atone for the crime he had committed. Heo replied, “Atone? [The women] do not want to go back to North Korea because they like the South. Do you even know how well they are doing? If they thought they were victims, they would have sought you and asked you to send them home. Do you even know what North Korea is like? If you think that giving them freedom and happiness is a crime, you should go live in North Korea.” Heo added, “I was appalled when he said we committed a crime by defecting. We defected despite the danger. It was a matter of life-and-death for us.”
This story raises many questions regarding the relationship between the Minbyun group and JeongDaeHyeop, which has drawn a lot of attention recently because of the allegations concerning its operations. Whether the JeongDaeHyeop group has engaged in activities other than it was originally chartered, e.g., justice for comfort women remains to be seen.