South Korea: Overseas North Korean restaurant workers flee

Tue, May 24, 2016 (12:03 a.m.)

SEOUL, South Korea — An unspecified number of North Koreans working at a Pyongyang-run restaurant overseas have escaped their workplace and will come to South Korea, South Korean officials said Tuesday.

The announcement by Seoul's Unification Ministry came after South Korean media reported that two or three female employees at a North Korean-run restaurant in China fled and went to an unidentified Southeast Asian country earlier this month.

It's the second known group escapes by North Korean restaurant workers dispatched abroad in recent weeks. In April, a group of 13 North Koreans who had worked at a North Korean-run restaurant in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo defected to South Korea.

The latest escapes will likely enrage Pyongyang, which typically accuses Seoul of trying to abduct or entice North Korean citizens to defect. South Korea has denied the accusation.

After the 13 workers — a male manager and 12 waitresses — arrived in Seoul in April, Pyongyang claimed they were kidnapped by South Korean spies and repeatedly demanded their return. South Korea said the workers chose to resettle in the South on their own. It was the largest group defection by North Koreans to the South since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.

A brief Unification Ministry statement Tuesday confirmed that some more North Korean restaurant workers abroad fled, but didn't elaborate. Officials at the unification and foreign ministries refused to provide further details about the North Koreans and their escapes, citing concerns about their safety and potential diplomatic problems with concerned countries. It's unclear when they will arrive in Seoul.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North Koreans had worked at a restaurant in the central Chinese city of Xian and that they may have traveled to Thailand. New Focus, a Seoul-based online news outlet run by a defector, which was among the first to break the news Monday, cited an unidentified source in China as saying the group comprised three women who had worked at a North Korean-run restaurant in Shanghai.

South Korea's spy service said earlier this year that North Korea was running about 130 restaurants overseas, mostly in China. Overall, North Korea has about 50,000 to 60,000 workers abroad, mostly in Russia and China, with a mission to bring in foreign currency, according to the National Intelligence Service.

South Korean officials believe overseas North Korean restaurants have been suffering economically since stronger international sanctions were applied against North Korea over its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year. The restaurant workers who defected to the South in April have said that their restaurant was struggling to meet demands from North Korean authorities at home for foreign currency, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

More than 29,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government data. Many defectors have testified that they wanted to avoid the North's harsh political system and poverty.

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