U.N. probes alleged abduction of North Korean restaurant workers, official says

SEOUL (Reuters) - A senior United Nations human rights official on Thursday said he was investigating North Korea's allegations that a dozen restaurant workers who arrived in the South from China last year were abducted against their will.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said he spent part of a four-day visit to Seoul looking into the claims surrounding the biggest mass defection case involving North Koreans in several years.

"I have received testimony taken by people in my office that shows inconsistencies in what may have happened," Quintana told a news briefing.

North Korea says the 12 waitresses were abducted, and a manager who defected with them tricked them into making the journey. It has demanded the return of the women, but officials in Seoul say they traveled voluntarily and were admitted on humanitarian grounds.

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North Korean soldier's defection across the DMZ
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North Korean soldier's defection across the DMZ
A CCTV footage shows a North Korean soldier crossing the white Military Demarcation Line during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of the soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
United Nations Command spokesman Colonel Chad G. Carroll shows a surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, during a press briefing at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A CCTV footage shows a North Korean soldier crossing the white Military Demarcation Line during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of the soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV
United Nations Command spokesman Colonel Chad G. Carroll shows a surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, during a press briefing at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
REFILE- QUALITY REPEAT A CCTV footage shows the heat signatures of a North Korean soldier (centre L) lying injured on the ground after he was shot while crossing into South Korea, as South Korean soldiers (centre R) approach him; during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of a North Korean soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV
A surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, is seen during a press briefing by the United Nations Command at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A CCTV footage shows a vehicle carrying a North Korean soldier during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of the soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV
A CCTV footage shows a North Korean soldier running from a vehicle during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of the soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV
United Nations Command spokesman Colonel Chad G. Carroll shows a surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, during a press briefing at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations Command spokesman Colonel Chad G. Carroll shows a surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, during a press briefing at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A CCTV footage shows a North Korean soldier running during a United Nations Command (UNC) briefing on the investigation results of the soldier� defection, at the South Korean defence ministry in Seoul in this still image taken from a Reuters TV video, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV
United Nations Command spokesman Colonel Chad G. Carroll shows a surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, during a press briefing at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A North Korean guard post (C) in the border county of Kaepoong is seen from a South Korean observation post in Paju near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on November 14, 2017. A North Korean soldier involved in an extremely rare and dramatic defection to the South was shot six times by his own side as he drove to the heavily guarded border and ran across under a hail of bullets. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A surveillance TV footage containing the moment of defection of a North Korean Soldier, is seen during a press briefing by the United Nations Command at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 22, 2017. A North Korean soldier crossed the border into the South in breach of a 1953 armistice agreement as he pursued a defector who was shot last week, the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) said on November 22. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Some of the workers are now university students, according to several sources who have met them, but all have kept a low profile and mystery still surrounds their trip.

Relatives in the North had also raised objections, Quintana added.

"I was told the father of one of these women recently passed away without meeting his daughter, adding to a long list of victims who continue to pay the absurd cost of division," he said.

The briefing was briefly interrupted by Kim Ryon Hui, a woman who said she had been forcibly held in South Korea for seven years.

Quintana said he had met Kim the previous day, but did not have the authority to comment on human rights issues in South Korea.

North Korean officials have said the 12 waitresses and Kim must be allowed to return before they allow family visits to resume.

In an interview with Reuters in November, Kim said she first arrived in the South to seek a better job, without realizing her return home would be blocked by its laws that the government must approve visits to, or contact with, the North.

Allowing Kim's permanent return would violate the law, says the South's Ministry of Unification, which estimates 881 defectors to have arrived from the North this year.

Quintana urged that international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program be tailored to avoid any adverse impact on human rights and economic livelihoods.

Restrictions on international financial transfers, for example, should not affect U.N. programs that provided humanitarian assistance, he said.

17 PHOTOS
President Trump's attempted DMZ visit
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President Trump's attempted DMZ visit
White House senior staff discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secret Service counter-assault team members travel by helicopter in the fog alongside President Donald Trump's helicopter in a failed attempt to visit Observation Post Ouellette along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing the two countries outside Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
In a borrowed U.S. Army jacket to keep warm, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders updates reporters on President Donald Trump's failed attempt, preempted by weather, to visit Observation Post Ouellette along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea outside Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secret Service counter-assault team members load up to travel by helicopter in the fog alongside President Donald Trump's helicopter in a failed attempt to visit Observation Post Ouellette along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing the two countries outside Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior staff discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) via helicopter to the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (looking at notes) huddles with White House senior staff to discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior staff discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior staff discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior staff discuss the situation as U.S. President Donald Trump sits in his car after being grounded from an attempt to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) via helicopter to the truce village of Panmunjom dividing North Korea and South Korea, at a U.S. military post in Seoul, South Korea, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to reporters after presidential helicopters returned US President Donald Trump to US Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, South Korea on November 8, 2017, due to bad weather just before they arrived for a vist to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waits next to helicopters as US Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, South Korea on November 8, 2017, waiting for bad weather to clear so they can try and make a second attempt to fly to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). US President Donald Trump was forced to abandon an attempted surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas due to bad weather, a pool report said.The US head of state, who the White House had previously said would not go to the symbolic spot, left his hotel in Seoul early in the morning and went to the Yongsan military base in the city, but a helicopter flight to the DMZ had to be called off due to weather conditions. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the helicopter squadron accompanying US President Donald Trump looks on as they attempt to fly to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) over Seoul, South Korea on November 8, 2017. The crew was forced to turn around before landing due to bad weather. US President Donald Trump was forced to abandon an attempted surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas due to bad weather, a pool report said.The US head of state, who the White House had previously said would not go to the symbolic spot, left his hotel in Seoul early in the morning and went to the Yongsan military base in the city, but a helicopter flight to the DMZ had to be called off due to weather conditions. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Secret Service counter-assault team members, accompanying US President Donald Trump in another helicopter, board a helicopter as they attempt to fly to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) over Seoul, South Korea on November 8, 2017. The crew was forced to turn around before landing due to bad weather. US President Donald Trump was forced to abandon an attempted surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas due to bad weather, a pool report said. The US head of state, who the White House had previously said would not go to the symbolic spot, left his hotel in Seoul early in the morning and went to the Yongsan military base in the city, but a helicopter flight to the DMZ had to be called off due to weather conditions. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Secret Service counter-assault team members, accompanying US President Donald Trump in another helicopter, prepare to board a helicopter as they attempt to fly to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) over Seoul, South Korea on November 8, 2017. The crew was forced to turn around before landing due to bad weather. US President Donald Trump was forced to abandon an attempted surprise visit to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas due to bad weather, a pool report said. The US head of state, who the White House had previously said would not go to the symbolic spot, left his hotel in Seoul early in the morning and went to the Yongsan military base in the city, but a helicopter flight to the DMZ had to be called off due to weather conditions. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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While Pyongyang has condemned the sanctions, Quintana called for the government to "substantiate its criticism with substantive data", and provide access for international human rights monitors.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South have been in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

A North Korean soldier who defected to the south in November was shot five times by border guards and critically wounded in his desperate dash through the demilitarized zone dividing the two.

(Additional reporting by Haejin Choi and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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