North Korean restaurant workers defect to South Korea

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |   April 8, 2016 at 10:02 AM
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SEOUL, April 8 (UPI) -- North Koreans who worked at a state-run restaurant in a third country arrived in South Korea on Thursday.

The defectors, a man and 12 women, had fled from an undisclosed location as economic sanctions on North Korea place an unprecedented amount of pressure on Pyongyang, Yonhap reported.

South Korean unification ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said the restaurant location couldn't be made public, out of concern for North Koreans still working in that country and for diplomatic reasons.

A source near the China-North Korea border said the group defection is "no trivial matter," and "unimaginable," given that restaurant workers from the North are of good family background.

Most North Korean restaurant employees are allowed to travel overseas because their parents are loyal to the regime and are often upstanding members of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. That policy reduces the likelihood of defections, according to South Korean media.

There was an incident in December 2006 when a waitress at a North Korean restaurant in Qingdao escaped and local authorities launched an investigation but later gave up the search, another source said.

"North Korean restaurants are facing economic difficulties after the adoption of U.N. sanctions resolution 2270," the source said.

Pyongyang's state-run restaurants overseas are a critical source of revenue for the regime and depend heavily on South Korean tourists. At some locations, South Koreans make up 60 to 80 percent of restaurant revenue.

But more restaurants are closing in the wake of North Korea's January announcement of a nuclear test. The provocation has discouraged South Korean tourists from patronizing the establishments, and sources say at least three out of 15 restaurants in Dandong, China, have closed.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, three out of six North Korean restaurants have gone out of business, according to Yonhap.

One source told South Korean media that the servers were not being sufficiently compensated, and that the relatively young North Koreans used to cry themselves to sleep at night.

The source added that their exposure to South Korean television programs in third countries made them realize the unrealistic policies of North Korea, and could have played a role in their decision to defect.

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