SEOUL, The Former North Korean restaurant workers who defected to South Korea from China about two years ago have all been issued passports here, a local lawyers' group said Wednesday.

Twelve female workers of the Ryukyung Restaurant, a North Korean establishment in Ningbo, China, and their male manager, Heo Kang-il, arrived in South Korea in April 2016.

Heo and one of the women were granted passports thereafter, but the 11 others remained without.

An official of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyun in Korean, an organization of progressive lawyers, said that the last two of the former Ryukyung Restaurant employees each recently received a passport, after their applications were repeatedly rejected.

One woman, who submitted a passport application Aug. 9 and was given a rejection notification Aug. 14, was issued a passport Aug. 30, while another woman was granted a passport Sept. 6, about three months after her application.

In this regard, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) allegedly lifted its longstanding passport restriction on the North Korean defectors around Sept. 3.

The fate of the 13 former North Korean restaurant workers seized fresh media attention earlier this year after Heo claimed in an interview that they were all enticed and kidnapped by the South Korean authorities.

North Korea's government has steadily demanded their repatriation, arguing that the group of 12 female workers and their male manager were abducted while working at a restaurant in China and brought to South Korea. But the South Korean government has dismissed the North's claim, saying the North Koreans defected of their own free will.

The Minbyun official said that the NIS appears to have lifted the passport restriction to avoid a controversy over human rights violations for the former North Koreans.

"Minbyun was preparing to file administrative litigation over the authorities' refusal to grant a passport to the former Ryukyung Restaurant employees. We have also filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and the commission began an investigation," said the official.

The passport can be issued to anyone who is a citizen of South Korea. Under Article 12 of the Passport Act, however, the NIS and the National Police Agency are capable of rejecting an application after an individual background check.

All of the former Ryukyung Restaurant employees have now been issued a passport but it remains to be seen whether they can freely go abroad and return without any restrictions, watchers say.

Source: Yonhap News Agency