July 10 (UPI) -- The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights called a group of North Korean waitresses "victims" after interviewing some of the defectors who fled a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China in 2016, an assessment that is raising eyebrows among rights activists.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has previously slammed Seoul for allowing the media to disclose the condition of a sick North Korean soldier after he escaped, said the North Korean women did not know they were bound for South Korea, local news service No Cut News reported Tuesday.
"There's a need to respect their rights as victims... 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, according to Yonhap.
"In regards to those who talked to me, it's clear that there were some shortcomings in regard to how they were brought to South Korea...Again, we need to respect their rights on what to do."
He added if it is found the waitresses were kidnapped out of China against their will, then it would be a criminal offense.
South Korea needs to conduct an independent investigation into the matter, he said.
The U.N. special rapporteur did not interview all 12 waitresses and it was not clear whether he had contact with their manager, Heo Kang Il, who had told the media South Korean agents "lured and kidnapped" the group.
Quintana did not rule out the possibility some of the defectors could return to the North, but said the decision should respect their will and also abide by a legal process in place in South Korea.
U.N. assessment under question
Quintana's public assessment may be premature, however.
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.
The rights activist also said any claim of kidnapping does not make sense, given the presence of tens of thousands of North Korean dissidents in the South.
"There are 32,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. The South Korean government doesn't need to kidnap North Koreans, regardless of who's in the Blue House," Scarlatoiu said, adding the waitresses, now naturalized South Korean citizens, do not need to speak to the media if they wanted to return home.
"The 12 waitresses have been in South Korea for over two years. They are all attending college. The timing is very dubious," he said.
On Tuesday the unification ministry said the waitresses had entered South Korea of their own free will, a claim that is supported by views from other defectors.
Jihyun Park, a defector and activist based in Britain, previously told UPI the group traveled through Malaysia and was processed through the South Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. They knew they were traveling to Seoul.
If they did not want to take the passage to the South, they could have refused to enter the embassy, but instead, they went in voluntarily, Park said, as she ruled out an abduction motive.