Seoul: South Korea on Tuesday said that its intelligence service had finished investigating 13 North Korean restaurant workers whose joint defection triggered accusations from Pyongyang that they were kidnapped.
A Unification Ministry official said the dozen waitresses and their manager had been "released into society" last week.
They had all been working at a North Korea-themed restaurant in China. Their arrival in the South in April made headlines as the largest group defection for years.
While Seoul said they fled voluntarily, Pyongyang claimed they were kidnapped by South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) and waged a vocal campaign through its state media for their immediate return.
For all North Korean defectors, life in the South begins with intensive NIS interrogation that can last for months and is aimed at weeding out possible spies.
They are then sent to a resettlement centre for three months' training, after which they are free to start new lives in South Korean society.
Arguing that the high-profile nature of the restaurant workers' case made them unusually vulnerable, the NIS had announced in June that they would remain in protective custody rather than being sent to the centre.
Now that they have been released, the unification ministry said it would provide no further details of their situation "for safety reasons".
"They did not want to be interviewed or make public their whereabouts," the ministry official said.
The dispute over the defectors has fanned inter-Korean tensions that have been running high since the North's fourth nuclear test in January.
Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.
But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered "loyal" to the regime.
The South's government estimates that Pyongyang rakes in around $10 million every year from about 130 restaurants it operates -- with mostly North Korean staff -- in 12 countries including neighbouring China.
North Korea's campaign for the return of the defectors has included emotional video interviews with the women's relatives in the North, angrily denouncing South Korean authorities and demanding a meeting with the women.
A group of liberal South Korean human rights lawyers -- having gained power of attorney from the relatives -- forced a court hearing into the case in Seoul in June.
But the NIS claimed the women were unwilling to testify and refused to bring them to court, saying they were being held incommunicado for their own protection and that of their families still in North Korea.
One member of the lawyers' group, Chae Hee-Joon, said he had no idea where the workers were but added that "we will continue our efforts to contact them".
Chae said his association was also pushing for legislation that would make it illegal for new defectors to be interrogated by the NIS without legal representation....