13 N. Korean restaurant workers legally leave China to defect to S. Korea

North Korean workers dancing at a government-run restaurant abroad

North Korean workers dancing at a government-run restaurant abroad

In what could be a slap in the face to its North Korean ally, China has allowed 13 restaurant workers to leave China legally to defect to South Korea.

The 12 women and 1 man had been working at a North Korean-run Pyongyang restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, but left China with the proper legal documents, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday. Illegal workers in China are usually repatriated to North Korea if they are caught, but the restaurant workers likely had Chinese work or business visas.

North Korea maintains 130 government-run restaurants around the world to bring in badly needed hard currency. News media have reported that workers in these restaurants are closely monitored and are rarely given freedom to move about.

South Korea announced the defection on Friday, but said nothing about the workers leaving China. But Chinese foreign ministry Lu Kang said at a routine news conference that 13 North Koreans “were found exiting the Chinese border with valid passports” on April 6.

China is North Korea’s only ally, and provides considerable aid (while also taking natural resources) from the so-called Hermit Kingdom. North Korean defectors found in China are generally sent back home, where they could face imprisonment or execution.

It’s difficult to say what will happen to the North Korean workers still in China. North Korea can’t afford to close the restaurants, but its security agents have increased surveillance of the workers to prevent further embarrassing defections.

The Ningbo workers said they had been watching South Korea soap operas on Chinese TV and had become disillusioned with the North. Author and defector Hyeonseo Lee told an audience in Beijing last month that North Koreans are “brainwashed” into thinking life in North Korea is far better than in the South.

North Korea has so far not commented on the mass defection.

For more details, check this article in The Guardian.

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