Sept. 10 (UPI) -- South Korea's National Human Rights Commission said the defection of 12 North Korean waitresses to the South in 2016 constitutes a "violation of their basic rights."
The first statement from the commission since the defections signifies a shift in the official stance on the incident involving the waitresses and their manager, who fled a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China.
The commission operates independently of other branches of government but is a state-run institution.
In its statement issued Tuesday, the South Korean task force pinned blame on the previous administration of President Park Geun-hye, a conservative, and Seoul's spy agency, for possible violations that include a "premeditated defection," Newsis reported.
Park is in jail, serving a 25-year sentence. Past reports indicate her health is deteriorating.
The commission said South Korea's prosecution needs to soon investigate the national intelligence service for evidence of wrongdoing. It is likely much of the evidence has been destroyed, the group added.
The commission also provided recommendations to the unification ministry, advising the agency to protect defectors' identities for their safety. The group said privacy needs to be improved for defectors.
The 2016 defection was made publicly known, with approval from the spy agency and the unification ministry, the commission said.
The task force said it is difficult to assume the defections were publicized for political purposes, a reference to general elections being held in Korea in April 2016.
North Korean refugees have said the move from some progressive groups in the South put defectors' lives at risk. None of the defectors has requested repatriation, and the manager, Heo Kang Il, came forward two years after resettlement, raising questions as to why he waited before coming forward with claims he and others were "lured and kidnapped" to the South.
Tongil News reported Tuesday the unification ministry said it will "look further" into the human rights commission report before making a final decision on next steps.
Experts have said Seoul should be "very careful" in handling the case.