Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) on Thursday confirmed three more defectors from a restaurant in China arrived in South Korea, almost two months after the group of 13 defected from a separate restaurant in North Korea’s neighbor.
The MoU declined to reveal any additional information. Last week, the ministry confirmed that the restaurant workers had defected to the South via a text message from their spokesperson’s office.
Defector-owned media outlet New Focus International broke the story one day before the MoU’s confirmation.
“There were nine defectors at the restaurant, but we couldn’t rescue all of them because of limits to our capacity,” Kim Yong-hwa, president of North Korean Refugee Human Rights Solidarity told NK News.
Kim said the restaurant workers, who were working at Shaanxi province, China, contacted him first, asking to defect.
“They said China is a ‘heaven’ compared to North Korea, and decided to defect upon learning of the deceptions behind the North Korean system.”
They came to South Korea via Thailand within two weeks of their defection, which took place in mid-May. Kim said the South Korean government helped them to shorten the defection process; it usually takes about a month to come to Seoul via Thailand and more than 100 days via Laos.
The three female defectors are reportedly being vetted by intelligence authorities.
Kim said that, based on his experience, defections from overseas North Korean workers are increasing while the total number of defections is decreasing due to stronger border security on the North’s side.
“North Korea used to shut down the restaurants if defections took place. These days, North Korea has decided to keep operating its restaurants despite such incidents to provide currency for the leadership,” Kim said, calling this a result of the sanctions.
The South Korean government has discouraged its citizens from visiting North Korean restaurants abroad since the January nuclear test.
“However, the life of overseas North Koreans is always difficult regardless of sanctions,” he said. There is a sales goal per table, and they are only paid $100 to $300 per worker.
The South Korean government publicly announced the previous defections just before its general elections in April, boasting of the influence of the sanctions. This contributed to suspicions about the announcement’s political calculations, with multiple experts saying the defection was at least partly planned by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
Pyongyang has repeatedly called the incident an “abduction,” using its state media as a platform for the parents of the defectors to demand the repatriation of their daughters.
Amid rumors of a “hunger strike” and the alleged death by starvation of one defector, Seoul’s Lawyers for a Democratic Society demanded that they be allowed to meet the defectors to confirm they were in Seoul of their own free will.
The NIS rejected this request but a defector advocate said in mid-May that they were healthy.