April 22, 2016 / 7:22 AM / 2 years ago

North Korea offers to send families of restaurant 'abductees' to Seoul

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Friday offered for a second time to send to Seoul the families of a group of restaurant workers who it says were abducted to the South, state media said, after South Korea rejected the first approach.

South Korea said two weeks ago that 13 North Korean workers at a restaurant run by the North in China had defected, in a case it described as unprecedented. North Korea accused South Korea of a “hideous abduction”.

“The families of the abductees are eagerly asking for face-to-face contact with their daughters as they were forced to part from their beloved daughters,” the chairman of the North Korean Red Cross said in a statement.

“At their earnest requests, our side again seriously notifies your side of our decision to send them to Seoul via Panmunjom.”

Panmunjom is the inter-Korean border village on the demilitarized zone where North and South Korea hold rare joint meetings and rival soldiers stand face-to-face in the world’s most heavily fortified border.

A truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed in Panmunjom in place of a peace treaty, meaning North and South Korea remain technically at war, locked in a prolonged period of exchanged rhetoric and heightened tension.

Under leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has adopted a different strategy when it comes to defectors, displaying re-defectors on national television and bringing the families of defectors to Panmunjom.

Seven of the restaurant workers who did not defect returned to Pyongyang and were paraded in front of a CNN reporter on a trip to the isolated country this week. They wept as they described how their colleagues had been tricked.

South Korea’s unification ministry said in a statement, reiterating comments from Thursday in response to North Korea’s first offer to send the families to the South, that the defection took place according to the workers’ “free will” and dismissed the offer as propaganda.

“(The offer) is unacceptable, considering their hopes, free will, and international customs concerning humanitarian issues,” it said.

About 29,000 people have fled North Korea and arrived in the South since the war, including 1,276 last year, with numbers declining since a 2009 peak. In the first quarter of this year, 342 North Koreans arrived in the South.

Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Nick Macfie

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