South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has confirmed that a number of North Korean workers from a state-run restaurant have defected. While the Ministry provided limited details, it did confirm that the group would be relocating to South Korea.
According to an unidentified source of the Yonhap News Agency, the restaurant employees were working in China. Their current location is unconfirmed. This is the latest in a series of high-profile defections from North Korea. In April, 13 North Koreans also working in a state-run restaurant in China defected to South Korea. That same month, the New York Times reported South Korea’s announcement that a high-ranking official in North Korea’s consolidated spy agency, the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, had defected to the South.
Pyongyang claims that the recent defectors were kidnapped by South Korea, according to BBC News. North Korea made a similar claim after the defection of the 13 restaurant workers. South Korea has adamantly denied these claims.
The two states share a historically contentious relationship. The peninsula was split in the aftermath of World War II in an American effort to prevent all of Korea from falling under Soviet control. What was initially meant to be a joint partnership in the cultivation of Korea fell apart as U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated in the lead-up to the Cold War. The result was a divided peninsula with two ideologically opposed halves that eventually went to war in 1950.
While the 1953 armistice ended open combat between the two states, it did not officially end the war. Tensions between the two countries remained high in the following decades. In recent years, there has been an effort for reunification between the two states. On an institutional level, this desire for reconciliation resulted in South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
Despite these efforts, the relationship remains rocky. Following the arrival of the North Korean defectors in the South, Pyongyang called for South Korea to allow them to meet with their family members back home. South Korea denied their request, claiming that this was simply a propaganda tactic by North Korea. According to South Korean officials cited by the New York Times, the defectors’ desire to leave came after witnessing life in South Korea through TV shows and movies.
As part of its reunification goals, South Korea is welcoming to North Korean defectors. After undergoing checks to verify their status as sincere defectors as opposed to spies, North Korean arrivals have access to resettlement assistance and resources. A large number of defectors arrive via China. As one of North Korea’s important economic partners, China is a hub for North Korean restaurants. It is precisely that close relationship between the two countries that prevents North Koreans from defecting to China.
It is unknown when the restaurant workers are due to arrive in South Korea. North Korea’s state-run restaurants abroad are a bizarre, but fascinating, demonstration of how the politically ostracized country manages to raise needed capital. A recent profile in the Washington Postdetailed how the restaurants serve as both a soft power method for spreading Korean culture through its popular dishes and a practical way of generating cash flow for the government.
Despite the mass exodus of employees in April, and these new reports of more defectors, defections from North Korean restaurants abroad are rare. That said, the sudden spike has observers speculating that the situation in North Korea under Kim Jong-un is growing increasingly unstable. An article in the Korea Times noted that citizens sent abroad to work in North Korea’s state-run restaurants are usually handpicked for their loyalty and social status. This suggests uncertainty about North Korea’s government even among its elite.
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