The door opens and seven women walk quietly into the ornate lobby of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. Their faces are expressionless. Most wear little or no makeup, black jackets, and patriotic red lapel pins.
The women, all in their 20s, represent some of the most trusted citizens in the North Korean capital. They come from good families and were chosen for the coveted assignment of working abroad to earn money for their government.
Until earlier this month, they were waitresses at a state-owned and operated restaurant in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, in southern China. Now, that restaurant is closed. And these women’s lives have become extraordinarily complicated.
“We would never leave our parents, country, and leader Kim Jong Un. None of us would ever do that,” said waitress Han Yun Hui, sobbing alongside her colleagues.
Defection or abduction?
Last week, South Korea announced 12 North Korean women and one man defected after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities” to send foreign currency back to their homeland, according to a South Korean government spokesman.
“The workers said that they learned about the reality in South Korea through South Korean TV, soap operas, movies and (the) internet,” said South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee at the time.
A spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross quickly denounced the apparent defections as a “group abduction” of North Korean employees “in broad daylight,” according to KCNA — the official mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s government.
Waitresses: Restaurant manager lied
The seven waitresses, presented exclusively to a CNN team in Pyongyang on Monday, are workers from the same Ningbo restaurant, who have since returned to North Korea. This is the first time they have spoken publicly. They claim the restaurant manager tricked the other 12 waitresses into leaving, by lying about their final destination.
“In mid-March our restaurant manager gathered us together and told us that our restaurant would be moved to somewhere in Southeast Asia,” said head waitress Choe Hye Yong.
Choe says by the time the manager revealed, only to her, that they would actually be defecting to South Korea, she only had time to “warn” a handful of the waitresses.
“The car was already waiting for us at that time,” Choe said as she broke down in tears.
The waitresses in Pyongyang claim their manager, and a South Korean businessman, coordinated the trip under the direction of government authorities in Seoul.
“I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there,” said a sobbing Han Yun Hui. “It tears our hearts.”
In response, the South Korean Unification Ministry issued a statement to CNN: “13 defectors voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside. Following their voluntary request to defect, our government accepted them from a humanitarian point of view.”