North Korean women performing at a state-sanctioned restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia. Controversy is roiling in South Korea after the leader of a group defection said he was coerced to leave China by a former South Korean administration. File Photo by Adi Weda/EPA
May 11 (UPI) -- A South Korean restaurateur who says he is acquainted with the 12 North Korean waitresses and their manager brought to the South in 2016 is disputing claims the group wants to return to the North.
JTBC interviewed the manager, Heo Kang-il, and three of the women who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Heo told the network the defections were a South Korea government-sanctioned "luring and kidnapping," a statement that would support North Korea's claims the former administration of jailed President Park Geun-hye seized the North Koreans who were working in a restaurant in China at the time of their disappearance.
The statements made on television, however, could do more harm than good for North Koreans seeking protection under South Korean law, according to local network YTN.
Kuk Ok-hyeon, the South Korean restaurateur who said the group is not happy with the statements, said at least one of the women who have resettled in the South is "losing sleep" following the inter-Korea summit on April 27.
Kuk said he recently met with the North Koreans for a late night of drinking.
During the meal, the defectors said they were worried South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un secretly agreed to repatriate the waitresses to the North.
"Every time they hear news related to the summit, they stay awake all night," Kuk said. "That's because they are not sure they will be discarded in the trash bin, now that they are no longer useful to the state."
The escape took only two days, a sign that the South Korean government was involved.
Park's government announced the defections immediately after.
Heo has been silent since he arrived in the South and remained anonymous until Thursday.
But he is now becoming vocal, accusing South Korean intelligence of "shooting him in the back," according to The New York Times.
Kuk said he knew the group while managing operations at one of his restaurants in northeast China.
The North Koreans were working at a Pyongyang-run restaurant across the way at the time, Kuk said.
It is unclear why Heo is speaking in public about the incident.
Oh Min-ae, an attorney with progressive group Minbyun in the South, said Heo has been making the claims because "he has found adjusting to life in the South difficult and frustrating," according to local network KBS.
South Korea's spy agency said it is closely reviewing the recent JTBC press report.