More overseas workers of North may flee

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More overseas workers of North may flee

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Chinese pass a North Korean state-run restaurant in Ningbo in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on Sunday, where 13 North Korean used to work before defecting to South Korea. The restaurant closed last Thursday, when the defectors arrived in the South. [SHIN KYUNG-JIN]

South Korea said it is highly likely that more North Koreans working abroad will soon defect to the South, according to sources, a major sign that the recent sanctions against the Pyongyang regime have had an effect.

A group of 13 North Koreans who worked at one of Pyongyang’s overseas restaurants arrived in the South on Thursday, according to the Ministry of Unification’s announcement Friday.

It was the first time that North Koreans working at the same restaurant defected as a group, unlike previous cases in which North Koreans escaped individually or with family members.

A source who has knowledge of North Korea said the possibility of other defections of North Korean employees at Pyongyang’s overseas restaurants, embassies and trading firms to the South has increased, as they are struggling to earn foreign currency for the North’s regime, due to their financial difficulties following the latest international sanctions.

South Korean government sources said that the group of North Koreans defected to Seoul swiftly after they made the decision, but declined to explain the specific route the defectors followed or when they first contacted the South Korean government due to concern for the safety of other North Koreans overseas.

According to local news reports, the 13 defectors - one male manager and 12 female employees - who worked at a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, traveled by land to a third country, likely Thailand or Myanmar, where they were able to get diplomatic support.

As there may soon be other defectors following the same path, the South Korean government said it will keep cooperating with related countries to bring North Koreans safely to the South, and will make sure that North Korean defectors are not repatriated to the North.

The largest single group of North Korean defectors under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, consisting of people described as middle-class, their escape shows they felt skepticism toward Pyongyang.

The regime is facing mounting international pressure after its recent nuclear test and a series of ballistic missile tests.

Alongside the UN Security Council’s resolution on March 3, the South Korean government also on March 8 announced its own set of unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang, advising South Koreans not to visit North Korean restaurants overseas, particularly in China, as they function as sources of hard currency for the regime.

Pyongyang operates 130 restaurants in 12 countries, which earn a total of $10 million for the regime annually. They have seen customers dwindle since the adoption of UN sanctions and South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

According to the South Korean government’s explanation, the 13 felt pressure to send foreign currency to Pyongyang, which is forcing its people to pay up ahead of the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which will be held in May for the first time in 36 years.

As well as the difficulties in earning money for the Pyongyang regime, their exposure to South Korean culture influenced the overseas workers to abandon their country.

According to a Unification Ministry official, one of the defectors said, “I realized the true meaning of happiness while I was living abroad and I didn’t want to go back to North Korea in this situation. I decided to defect [to the South] as I believed this was my last chance in my lifetime.”

“As the sanctions against North Korea have been strengthened, I thought there was no hope remaining for the North’s regime,” another North Korean defector told the South. “I defected to Seoul where there is hope.”

A South Korean government official said on Sunday that there are apparent signs that North Korea has suffered from sanctions that were imposed last month, underscoring that some Chinese traders are shunning to transactions with the North and several of the North’s state-run overseas restaurants have closed down.

He added that the prices of daily necessities including rice at the markets near the China-North Korea border have risen.

BY KIM SO-HEE, KIM HYOUNG-GU [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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