North Korean Restaurant Workers Defect To South From China

A small number of North Korean workers recently defected from a restaurant in China, according to an official in the South Korean Unification Ministry. Speaking under condition of anonymity, the official confirmed the news to Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday.

“It is a fact that North Koreans have recently fled an overseas restaurant,” said the ministry official. “But we cannot confirm anything about their current situation.”

This confirmation comes after days of media speculation in South Korea, with reports that either two or three North Koreans had defected from a restaurant, likely in Xian or Shanghai, and were hiding in a third country.

Jang Jin-sun, a former North Korean government official who defected in 2004 and now runs the New Focus International news agency, told the Wall Street Journal that he received information from someone who helped the workers escape. He reported that the restaurant was near Shanghai, but wouldn’t confirm exactly where because he believes more workers will try to defect. He also declined to name the third country the defectors are hiding in now but said that he expects them to arrive in Seoul in 10 to 15 days.

Kim Jong-un at North Korean Party Congress
Kim Jong-un holds North Korea's first party congress in 36 years. [Photo by Wong Maye-E/AP Photo)

North Korea runs a network of 130 restaurants in 13 different countries, including China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. According to Yonhap News Agency, the regime sends nearly 50,000 workers abroad to add an estimated $10 million to Pyongyang’s revenue stream. The country’s economic situation has been dire since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and was further weakened when the United Nations Security Council issued sanctions after North Korea performed a nuclear test in January and launched a long-range rocket in February.

Many of the restaurants operated by Pyongyang are frequented by South Korean tourists who enjoy the kitschy music and decor and are intrigued by a rare chance to interact with their northern counterparts. After the January nuclear test, the South Korean government asked its citizens not to visit these restaurants and fund the regime’s hostile actions. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service also has noted that nearly 20 restaurants in China and the United Arab Emirates have either shut down or suspended service due to the recent sanctions.

A source close to North Korean affairs told Yonhap News Agency that it appears the defectors fled the restaurant not long after the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea held its first congress in 36 years. The source claimed that Pyongyang was pressuring the restaurant to send more money to help prepare for the congress despite the restaurant’s difficulty in raising funds. Human rights groups believe that North Korean restaurant workers are forced to work long hours and send nearly all of their earnings back to Pyongyang.

Korean War Armistice Anniversary in Seoul
South Korean protestors burn effigies of North Korean leaders on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement. [Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

There is some speculation that this defection was influenced by the first-ever mass defection, which occurred in April when a group of 13 restaurant workers living in the northeastern port city of Ningbo, China fled to Seoul amid reports of tougher international sanctions. Pyongyang has countered that the workers were kidnapped by South Korea and has demanded their return. China, however, has said the individuals left using legal passports.

North Korea is known to handpick its overseas workers based on party loyalty and social standing. As Yonhap News Agency reports, all 13 of the of last month’s defectors are said to have good social status in the North. This has spurred some to speculate that the elite are beginning to doubt Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

Speaking to the Korean Times, Ahn Chan-il, head of the World North Korea Research Center, suggested that the North Korean defectors might be leaving because outside media makes it clear the regime cannot last much longer.

“The restaurant staff might have undergone a change of mind as they listened to reports of things taking place in the world beyond North Korea,” Ahn said.

One of the 13 North Korean defectors testified that the group chose to flee due to harsh conditions and the belief that there is no more hope for North Korea due to the severity of the sanctions.

[Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]