Proof of a failing systemA group of North Koreans defected to South Korea for the first time since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. 13 workers at a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China, entered South Korea Thursday via a third-party country — exactly a month before the North’s 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party on May 7. The defection dashed cold water on Pyongyang’s desire to signal the full-fledged opening of the Kim Jong-un regime amid solid solidarity and heated festivities.
The defection attracts our attention for three reasons. First, it was a group defection. Such a type of escape is very rare since the 11-membered Kim Man-chol family’s defection in 1987 by boat. A collective defection requires a concerted action among members, given the tight surveillance by security agents. A defector said that every member had the same thought and no one opposed the escape, which suggests serious problems with the increasingly oppressive systems in the North.
Second, it is the first defection by North Koreans with relatively good backgrounds. Employees at the North’s overseas restaurants mostly hail from the well-educated middle or elite class. They abandoned their country after being exposed to South Korean societies through TV dramas and movies aired in China, which helped them wake up from the state-administered decades-long propagandas against the South.
Third, the mass defection signifies the inexorable degree of pressure from Pyongyang, as evidenced by a defector’s remarks that they have been under humongous pressure for transferring hard currency despite fast-declining revenues since the toughest-ever UN sanctions. North Korea runs over 130 restaurants in 12 countries and earns more than $10 million annually. Each restaurant must remit $300,000 per year to Pyongyang to prove its loyalty to the Kim dynasty and some extra money as a sign of “special loyalty” ahead of the congress in May. If they fail to meet the goal, only harsh punishment awaits them.
North Korean people deserting their country in group symbolizes the political and economic failures of the Kim Jong-un regime. If he wants to be a genuine leader, he must first take care of their livelihoods instead of focusing on nuclear weapons development.
Our government also has demonstrated impatience, as it made public their arrival in Seoul only a day after their defection. Defection involves month-long joint investigations by government agencies, and several defectors are still waiting in third party countries. The government cannot secure their safety if it is engrossed in exploiting the defection for political gains ahead of the April 13 general election.
JoongAng Ilbo, Apr. 11, Page 30