Row over North Korea defectors echoes in Seoul court

Seoul (AFP) - A South Korean court hearing into a dozen North Korean defectors who Pyongyang insists were abducted, adjourned Tuesday with a motion to replace the judge after he declined to compel the 12 women to appear.

The closed-door hearing pitted officials from South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, (NIS) against a group of human rights lawyers who contend the defectors are being illegally detained.

All 12 were waitresses at a North Korean-run restaurant in China who arrived in the South in April with their manager, making headlines as the largest group defection in years.

While Seoul says they fled to the South voluntarily, Pyongyang claims they were kidnapped by NIS agents and has waged a campaign through its state media for their immediate return.

A liberal South Korean legal association called Lawyers for a Democratic Society had instigated the court proceedings in an effort to have the sequestered defectors produced to answer questions.

But the NIS claimed the women were unwilling to testify and refused to bring them to court, saying they were being held incommunicado for their own protection and that of their families still in North Korea.

- Motion to replace judge -

When the judge accepted the NIS argument, the lawyers' group filed a motion for him to be removed from the case and the court was adjourned.

"If the judge says he will hear the case without the testimony of the restaurant workers, it means that he would make a ruling based on the words of the NIS," said attorney Chae Hee-Jun.

"We can't call that a trial," Chae said.

North Korea's campaign for the return of the defectors has included emotional video interviews with the women's relatives in the North, angrily denouncing South Korean authorities and demanding a meeting with the women.

The Lawyers for a Democratic Society managed to force the court hearing after obtaining power-of-attorney from the defectors' families.

The dispute has fanned inter-Korean tensions that have been running high since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test in January.

As the court hearing opened, Japanese and South Korean media cited military and government officials as saying North Korea appeared to be preparing to test a powerful, new medium-range ballistic missile.

- Resettlement process -

For all North Korean defectors, life in the South begins with intensive NIS interrogation that can last for months and is aimed at weeding out possible spies.

They are then given three months in a government centre where they learn basic survival skills, such as riding the subway, using a mobile phone and buying goods in a supermarket.

But the Unification Ministry in Seoul said Tuesday that the waitresses would be kept under NIS "protection" rather than being sent to the resettlement centre.

A ministry official said their case had become too high-profile and the escalating dispute with Pyongyang made them unusually vulnerable.

"If we send them to the facility for resettlement training, there will be more media attention and the training will not be conducted smoothly," the official told AFP.

Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.

But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered "loyal" to the regime.

The South Korean government estimates that Pyongyang rakes in around $10 million every year from about 130 restaurants it operates -- with mostly North Korean staff -- in 12 countries, including neighbouring China.

There have been reports of staff not being paid, with restaurants pressured into increasing their regular remittances to Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, South Korea announced that another three waitresses from a different restaurant in China had arrived in Seoul after defecting.

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