July 19 (UPI) -- South Korea is not issuing passports for the North Korean waitresses who fled a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China, citing safety concerns, according to a local news report.
A Seoul spy agency source who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed to News 1 the 12 women will not be issued passports, but the agency is "monitoring the changing situation."
"The measure was inevitable, given the concerns about the safety of the waitresses, when they travel overseas," the source said.
The restrictions could contradict South Korean law. According to Seoul's foreign ministry, all South Korean citizens have freedom of movement and have a right to a passport. Exceptional circumstances where a passport is not issued include the risk of terrorism overseas to the individual applicant.
Minbyun, the progressive South Korean legal organization that has argued for the waitresses to be reunited with their families in the North, is considering taking some form of administrative legal action on behalf of the North Koreans, according to News 1.
"One waitress went to her ward office three times to apply for a passport, but the passport was never issued. Neither her ward [district] nor the police have an explanation as to why," said attorney Chae Hee-joon, a Minbyun affiliate.
The uproar over the 12 waitresses began when their manager, Heo Kang Il, said on South Korean television intelligence agents "lured and kidnapped" the group.
The controversy continued after the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana described the women as victims who were "deceived" into leaving the restaurant.
But Heo's claims are under question, according to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
A source who spoke anonymously to the paper said the South Korean agents who brought the women out of China were not affiliated with Seoul's National Intelligence Service, but with the South Korean defense ministry's intelligence command.
Heo had said he was working as an informant for the NIS before the group fled China.
The source said NIS agents are not involved in operations in China, and cover operations outside the country.
It was the military intelligence command that brought the women out of the Ryugyong Restaurant, and arranged for their travel to Shanghai, where they boarded a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and they entered the South Korean Embassy, Chosun's source said.