May 30 (UPI) -- South Korean politicians and activists are divided over what to do with the 12 North Korean waitresses and their manager who fled a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China in 2016.
South Korean conservatives of the center-right Bareun Party said Wednesday North Korea is denying human rights abuses and encouraging a domestic split in the South, by demanding the defectors' return, Newsis reported.
"The question of repatriating North Korean waitresses must be evaluated according to the universal value of human rights, regardless of doubts raised or North Korean pressure," said Bareun Party spokesman Kwon Sung-ju. "Human rights cannot be the object of negotiation."
Kwon added North Korea is using rhetoric to pit conservatives against pro-engagement South Koreans, and to create a "South-South" or domestic conflict.
"We should not give up on human rights in order to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons," the party spokesman said.
South Korea's progressive Moon Jae-in administration has been cautious to denounce North Korean statements.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang's KCNA said the South's refusal to repatriate the waitresses was "anti-humanitarian" policy and blamed a past conservative administration for the defections.
North Korea has previously claimed Seoul's spies kidnapped the women from their location in China.
Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyun has said the defectors came to the South of their own free will.
On Wednesday, the ministry said the issue would be resolved through dialogue, News 1 reported.
"To publicly disclose the intention of North Korea [statements] is not appropriate," ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said. "Our position on solving the problem through dialogue has not changed."
Activists in South Korea who say repatriating the North Koreans is the right thing to do include Minbyun, a progressive lawyers group, and the National Council of Churches in Korea.
North Korea is expected to raise the issue as a bargaining chip on Friday, during high-level inter-Korea talks.
Issues to be discussed include family reunions and railroad connections, according to News 1.