Dec. 14 (UPI) -- A United Nations human rights official is seeking access to the dozen North Korean waitresses who fled a state-run restaurant in China in 2016, and his comments are drawing reactions from South Korea this week.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights issues who recently rebuked Seoul for exposing a worm-ridden defector, said he intends to investigate the group defection, which took place in April 2016, Japanese news agency Kyodo reported Wednesday.
Quintana said he had met with lawyers from a progressive South Korean legal organization, Minbyun.
The group has previously been denied access to the young women after they crossed safely to the South.
The U.N. official, who previously criticized Seoul for giving media access to the medical diagnosis and surgery of a North Korean soldier, said he takes great interest in the case.
Quintana added he would like to meet with the women's family members in North Korea.
North Korea may respond positively to the U.N. official's statements.
Pyongyang has charged Seoul's spy agency of kidnapping the women from their location in China and has demanded their repatriation.
North Korea has said it will reject inter-Korea civic projects, including family reunions, until the former waitresses are returned to their families, South Korean news service News 1 reported.
South Korea has said the women defected by their own free will, a statement that was reiterated at South Korea's national intelligence service on Wednesday.
"The employees who defected left voluntarily by their own free will, and we have gone through a process that confirmed their intention," a NIS official told News 1.
The defectors have kept a low profile but are "committing themselves to studies," or have enrolled in school, a unification ministry added.