A famous North Korean defection may have actually been a kidnapping engineered by the South—news that comes at a slightly awkward moment for the two Koreas, the New York Times reports. A South Korean cable TV channel broke the news Thursday, saying the apparent defection of 12 waitresses and their manager from a restaurant in China in 2016 was not made by choice. "It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead," says Heo Kang-il, the former manager. "I blackmailed them and told them to make a choice: 'If you return home, you die, and if you follow me, you live.' I am now remorseful for what I did." Three women appeared with him, their faces blurred, and confirmed his story.
"I want to go home, because living like this is not the life I wanted," said one of the women. "I miss my parents." Like Heo, the women were among thousands of North Koreans who took foreign jobs to send money back to their government. Heo says South Korea's intelligence service then offered him big rewards to take the women South, but the rewards never came. And critics say the South only engineered the defections to trumpet them before parliamentary elections, Reuters reports. Now South Korea is in a tricky position after refusing North Korea's many demands to have the women repatriated. But for Heo, it seems to be revenge. "They had me believe that this was a big patriotic operation," he says. "But they used me and then shot me in the back."