North Korean Restaurant Workers Defect En Masse: Largest Group In Recent Memory

A group of 13 restaurant workers defected from North Korea today, arriving safely in South Korea, reports South Korean media. The defectors from North Korea are largely restaurant workers, according to reports, and the South Korean unification ministry confirms that the North Korean defectors arrived safely this week.

In order to protect the North Korean defectors’ families who may still be within North Korea, the South Korean government has declined to release any personal information about the identities of the North Korean defectors other than the fact that they are all restaurant workers, which is significant given that restaurant workers in North Korea have a notoriously difficult time defecting to the South.

According to the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea, 12 of the restaurant workers are female, and one, the manager, is male. North Korea runs around 130 restaurants in other countries as part of the secretive nation’s program to pull in hard currency, which its economy sorely requires. Reports from within South Korea suggest that North Korean restaurants operated in other countries, including China, Russia, and others in Southeast Asia, but they’ve been subject to new sanctions after North Korea’s provocative nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests.

“It marked the first time that a group of North Koreans at the same restaurant has opted to come to South Korea at once, the government has accepted to come to South Korea on humanitarian grounds,” said Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean unification ministry.

The announcement today, reports USA Today, is unusual for South Korea, which typically likes to keep North Korean defections a secret in order to protect the families of the defectors, and the defectors themselves, from North Korean agents abroad. The North Korean defectors told South Korean officials that they learned about life in South Korea and the world abroad by watching TV while living overseas. South Korean TV dramas in part helped the North Korean defectors to understand that the propaganda within North Korea offered a false view of the outside world.

According to the Associated Press, the 13 North Korea defectors may have been staffers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Danang, Vietnam. The Associated Press called every North Korean-operated restaurant throughout Asia, and all but one, the Crowne Plaza Hotel, were still in operation. The Crowne Plaza Hotel, though, reportedly closed its North Korean restaurant, the Pyongyang Restaurant, after the staff reportedly left the country.

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According to the U.N. General Assembly, as of this October, some 50,000 North Koreans are living and working in foreign countries, providing some or all of their income to the North Korean regime as a significant source of money for the otherwise impoverished Pyongyang. The North Korean nationals mostly lived and worked in China and Russia, two nations that have criticized North Korea in recent months but otherwise have good relationships with the secretive nation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the size of the group of North Korean defectors is unusual, in part because only the most loyal North Koreans are allowed to live and work outside of the secretive nation over fears that they might defect to South Korea or other countries, which have a history of accepting asylum requests from North Korean nationals.

Similarly, group defections from North Korea are particularly rare in part because of a culture that permeates North Korea, where individuals frequently report on one another to authorities. Group defections, says the Wall Street Journal only typically happen when an entire family attempts to escape the North Korean regime, removing much of the fear of retaliation.

The number of refugees from North Korea has fallen dramatically since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

[Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images]