Thirteen North Korean workers escaped an overseas North Korean restaurant and arrived in Seoul this week, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) announced Friday evening.
One male manager and 12 female employees were among the group that arrived, the MoU said in a bulletin distributed to journalists.
“It is first case where a group of North Koreans escaped the same restaurant and came to Seoul,” Jeong Joon-hee, Unification Ministry spokesperson said.
The MoU did not share details about the timing and location of the defection, citing “possible friction with a third country,” though an anonymously sourced Yonhap report said skepticism about North Korea’s political system and fantasy about life in the South “motivated” them to flee.
“Restaurants are the most difficult place to defect from,” said one North Korea rights activist after learning about news. “Thirteen sounds like the workers of one entire restaurant left altogether,” the activist continued, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
Notably, South Korean authorities do not typically release information about arriving defectors, with Seoul-based North Korea watcher Daniel Pinkston telling NK News the timing of the news release was therefore curious.
“The timing is interesting – late Friday afternoon, and just days before the election,” he said, referring to an April 13 general election coming up in South Korea.
“The MOU says it cannot disclose the timing or the location of the defection. Maybe there are legitimate security reasons to withhold the details, but I don’t know exactly why that might be the case,” he added.
And in contrast to the restaurant workers, the anonymous North Korea activist pointed out that the arrival of nine defectors at risk of repatriation in China was not publicized at all last year by the government in Seoul.
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The development follows Seoul in February requesting South Korean citizens stop visiting overseas North Korean restaurants, to help bolster punishment against Pyongyang for its 2016 nuclear and rocket tests.
“After the sanctions, 60-90 percent of the restaurants’ profits decreased. There could be pressure against overseas workers asking for more profits. This may be the reason for defection,” the North Korea rights activist added.
Indeed, overseas labor is a large source of foreign currency for North Korea, reports and experts have long argued.
“Restaurants like Koryo-won, Koryo-gwan in Dandong and Arirang in Yanji, are large sources of profit for North Korea, managed like a corporation, contracted with South Korean travel agencies” Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-ah University, told NK News in February.
North Korea earns between $200 million and $300 million from approximately 50,000 overseas workers per year, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB).
The revenue such overseas workers generate is judged to be more than twice the total wages paid to North Koreans formerly working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex last year, which was around $100 million per year.
“Ninety percent of their wages are ‘contributed’ to the regime. Most of projects involve subcontracted jobs, which means the laborers have to pay expenses to brokering managers again. The laborers work a part-time job to make up their living,” Lee Seung-ju, a researcher at the NKDB said at a press briefing last December.
Despite the poor conditions, interviews with defectors suggest significant competition for overseas postings, with multiple rounds of bribery required to earn postings.
Main picture: C. Gauge, NK News
H. Choi, JH Ahn and C. O’Carroll contributed to this report
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