SEOUL, July 11 (UPI) -- Thirteen staff members of a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo went to South Korea in April 2016. Their defection, however, has met suspicions the trip may not have been voluntary and involved possible political maneuvering.
"The workers were told that the restaurant would move to Malaysia and asked to pack their stuff. When they arrived in Malaysia, they found out that they were headed to the South Korean Embassy," Jang Kyung-uk, a legal representative of the former North Korean restaurant workers, told UPI.
The restaurant manager duped the workers into making the journey and threatened to report them if they attempt to go back to the North, Jang said.
Jang was at a meeting between three North Korean restaurant workers and U.N. Special Rapporteur in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana on July 4 in Seoul. Quintana visited Seoul to assess human rights situations in the North. He and seven other lawyers have been investigating the case for two years.
Jang said the lawyers are entrusted by family members in the North to represent their daughters in the South.
In the interview with Quintana, the restaurant manager and two workers gave a detailed account of how they traveled to the South. They initially thought they were on the move to another workplace, o Jang said.
After the interview, Quintana said some of them appear to be "victims" of a scam.
"When I say victims, I am implying that they were subject to some kind of deceit in regard to where they were going," Quintana said in Seoul on Tuesday.
Jang claimed the restaurant manager was bribed and ordered by the South Korea's National Intelligence Service under former President Park Geun-hye to set up a defection plan. The trip was arranged in coordination with an intelligence officer and made eight days ahead of a local parliamentary election.
Manager Heo Kang-il told JTBC the intelligence agency planned the trip for conservatives to "win the democratic party" in the election. South Korean media outlet JTBC ran interviews with Heo and two female workers in May.
North Korea has also claimed the restaurant workers were abducted and demanded the South Korean government immediately return them.
"Now the workers know they were used for political reasons. They are demanding a thorough investigation and an apology from those involved in the scheme. They also want to meet their parents as soon as possible," Jang said.
Most of the restaurant workers are women in 20s.
Quintana also said Tuesday the South Korean government should conduct a "thorough and independent" investigation.
In response to Quintana's statement, South Korea's Unification Ministry said the workers came "voluntarily."
"I understand that the workers came to the South of their own free will," Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman of the Ministry of Unification, said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday. "I have nothing more to add to this."
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, told UPI on Tuesday Quintana's assessment of the defections as a "kind of deceit" is the equivalent of a "senior U.N. official reaching a verdict prior to any investigation."
"I do not agree with Mr. Quintana's assessment. Competent authorities in South Korea have already ruled this was a defection. There is no need for any further investigation," Scarlatoiu said.
Elizabeth Shim contributed to this report.