SEOUL, May 23 (UPI) -- A flurry of elite North Korean defections could have taken place not long after the Seventh Party Congress – this time involving three waitresses at a state-run restaurant near Shanghai.
Jang Jin-sung, a defector and founder of New Focus International, said the 13 restaurant workers who fled another restaurant in Ningbo, China, could have been a catalyst for the most recent group defection, South Korean television network MBC reported.
The workers "defected in response to rumors of a [restaurant] reorganization and orders to repatriate" to North Korea, Jang said.
North Korea's network of restaurants earns valuable foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime, which has been placed under heavier sanctions since early March.
The South Korean government has yet to confirm Jang's statement on the defections. A Seoul intelligence official who spoke to local news service Newsis on the condition of anonymity said they are "checking" the report and that verification "could take some time."
North Korea has previously accused the South of kidnapping defectors who left China on valid passports.
Restaurant workers are typically of elite North Korean background as they are the members of society who can be trusted to return even after experiencing freedom of life overseas, Yonhap reported.
The multiple defections, if confirmed, could serve a critical blow to Kim, who was nominated "chairman" in a bid to consolidate his power in his fifth year of rule.
The three defectors are believed to have applied for South Korean asylum in a third-party country in Southeast Asia.
Seoul's National Intelligence Service stated on April 27 that North Korean restaurants are feeling the effects of international sanctions.
About 20 restaurants have closed, in countries like China and the United Arab Emirates, Seoul has said.