The defection occurred during the presidency of Mr. Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, a conservative who was much more confrontational toward North Korea. Ms. Park was later impeached, removed from office and jailed over a corruption scandal.
Her government said the group defection indicated that North Korea’s elite — which includes those citizens trusted to work abroad — was becoming disillusioned with Kim Jong-un, the country’s young leader. South Korea took the unusual step of announcing the women’s defection the day after they arrived.
In the interview in May with the South Korean news channel JTBC, the women’s manager, Heo Kang-il, said he had conspired with South Korean intelligence officers to bring the women to the South. He said he told them they were being transferred to another restaurant in Southeast Asia. Like other North Korean workers abroad, the women were trained to obey their manager, who held their passports.
The women interviewed by JTBC said they did not realize where they were going until Mr. Heo took them to the South Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When they balked at entering, they said Mr. Heo threatened to tell the North Korean authorities that the women often watched South Korean movies in China, a serious offense for North Korean workers abroad.
Mr. Heo said he had indeed made that threat. “I blackmailed them and told them to make a choice: ‘If you return home, you die, and if you follow me, you live,’” he said. “It was luring and kidnapping, and I know because I took the lead.”
Mr. Heo told JTBC that the South’s National Intelligence Service had timed the defection to rally conservative votes in parliamentary elections.
Neither Mr. Ojea Quintana nor JTBC has interviewed all 12 of the women. South Korean officials said that some of the women were wary of speaking in public because it could jeopardize their relatives in North Korea. These officials said that if some of the women returned to the North, those who stayed behind could be branded as genuine defectors and their families could suffer.
Mr. Ojea Quintana said the government should respect the women’s individual decisions about whether they wanted to return. The women interviewed by JTBC said they had struggled to adjust to life in South Korea and wanted to go back.