June 20, 2016 / 9:13 AM / 3 years ago

South Korea spy agency bars 12 waitresses from North from court

SEOUL (Reuters) - A South Korean court has ordered the spy agency to make 12 North Korean waitresses who defected to the South available to answer whether they defected of their free will, but the agency said they would not be presented in court.

The National Intelligence Service is holding the 12 women who fled a restaurant run by the North in China.

An official at the service said on Monday only the women’s “legal representatives” would attend the court hearing on Tuesday.

The court order came after a group of lawyers filed a petition for a hearing to determine whether the 12 were being held against their will.

North Korea has accused the South of abducting the 12 and another person who was a manager of the restaurant and demanded their return. It has also offered to send their families to the South to question the women for themselves.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles political ties with the North, said the defectors were being protected by the government as they go through a resettlement process.

“We have said repeatedly that the defectors from the North have entered the South on their free will,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told a briefing.

The intelligence agency runs the facility on the southern outskirts of the capital, Seoul, where more than 1,000 North Koreans who defect and arrive in the South each year are held for up to 180 days while they are screened.

They are separated for questioning on their backgrounds and lives in the North and their decision to flee, spending time in solitary but comfortable rooms.

Once cleared, they are moved to a resettlement complex, which they cannot leave, for another 12 weeks to help them adjust to life in the South.

Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Editing by Nick Macfie

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