SEOUL, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- North Korean propaganda outlets on Wednesday called for the immediate return of a group of North Korean restaurant workers living in South Korea after a mass defection in 2016, claiming a human rights watchdog confirmed all of them were kidnapped.
Twelve female workers of the Ryukyung Restaurant, a North Korean establishment in Ningbo, China, arrived in South Korea in April 2016, along with their male manager. Critics have raised suspicions that South Korea's spy agency might have pulled strings behind the rare group defection made public a few days ahead of general elections.
A state human rights watchdog in Seoul recently dismissed the suspicion, citing lack of evidence, but added that there is a possibility of some of the North Koreans having been coerced by the manager into defecting to the South.
Meari, a North Korean propaganda outlet, carried an interview with a mother of one of those North Korean defectors in which she called for the return of all of them, including her daughter, claiming that there is no reason for South Korea to hold them anymore.
"It is appropriate that the South Korean authorities should send our daughters back home as they have acknowledged that they were all kidnapped," the woman was quoted as saying. "There is no reason whatsoever for the South Korean authorities to hold them while making such improper excuses as settlement and personal safety."
Uriminzokkiri, another North Korean propaganda outlet, said the latest report by the human rights watchdog revealed that the North Koreans were kidnapped for political purposes, which it said amounts to a "crime against humanity" that cannot be forgiven.
"If the South Korean authorities try to smooth over this issue and act foolish, then it could have serious consequences on inter-Korean issues such as reunions of separated families and relatives," it said.
Earlier this month, a team of international lawyers said that the restaurant workers arrived in South Korea after being "deceived and abducted" by the manager. The lawyers group said it will report the results to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the end of this month.
The South Korean government has said that there was no state-level coercion in the process of their defection, adding that all individuals' will to come to the South was confirmed before their arrival. Civic groups are opposing any possible repatriation of the 12 North Koreans for fear that they could face harsh punishment back home.