North Koreans in China asking for help for defection

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North Koreans in China asking for help for defection

About 20 North Koreans in China have asked a non-governmental group in Seoul to help them defect to South Korea - some of them people working in foreign trade who were trusted by Pyongyang.

An official at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said Tuesday that about 20 North Koreans in China sent “an emergency aid request” to the group.

“The request either came through a broker (trying to arrange an escape route) in China or through a direct line to us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Among the roughly 20 potential defectors are people who had been vetted by North Korean authorities to work in trade in China - with records of loyalty to the communist regime.

The NGO official said the relief requests had been passed on to the government. Last year, the group received about 30 aid requests from North Koreans working in China, according to the official.

The fact that traders, an elite group in North Korea, are trying to defect to South Korea suggests that something has changed in the circumstances of some relatively privileged groups living outside of the country.

The South Korean government confirmed Tuesday that North Korean workers at a restaurant overseas had escaped their workplace in a bid to defect. The rare confirmation of the defection attempt came a day after Jang Jin-sung, a defector-turned-journalist, claimed that three female North Korean restaurant workers had escaped and moved to a third country, where they are awaiting a flight to Seoul. Jang clarified Tuesday that the workers were actually from Shanxi Province. He claimed they were from Shanghai the day before to protect the defectors. They are now in Thailand, he said.

Other than confirming the North Korean workers had escaped their workplace, the Unification Ministry Tuesday refused to elaborate further.

In principle, the government does not confirm a defection until the North Korean lands in the country.

Workers dispatched to North Korean restaurants overseas undergo a vetting process similar to traders before being dispatched. Reports of the three-member defection as well as a mass defection by 13 North Korean restaurant workers last month from the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo, Zhejiang province, suggests a change in their circumstances as a result of tougher sanctions imposed by the outside world.

According to Jang, the three defectors had emulated the 13 defectors, who made their way to Seoul in early April. He said the three had been under “growing pressure” to make money to send it back to cash-hungry North Korea, which has been slapped with tightened sanctions for its fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range missile test the following month.

“As Pyongyang was preparing for its party congress [earlier this month], it raised pressure on North Korean workers overseas to send more currency,” said Jang, who came to South Korea in 2004 and now runs the magazine New Focus International, which exclusively reports on North Korea. “It appears that the 13-member defection last month had an impact on other restaurant workers overseas,” said a Unification Ministry official Tuesday.

Pyongyang called the 13-member defection an “abduction” by the South Korean intelligence agency and demanded the workers be repatriated.

The North also demanded a face-to-face meeting between the 13 defectors and their families at the border village of Panmunjom, which was rebuffed by the South, which made clear they sought asylum on their own.

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