JISHOU, HUNAN — Nearly a month after 13 North Korea restaurant workers in Ningbo, China, left for South Korea, the North Korea government is still trying to save face.
First, the North accused the South of forcibly abducting the 12 women and one man, but that idea didn’t hold much water after Chinese officials publicly stated the group had legal exit papers and were free to leave China.
Reuters also reported that four of the women had gone shopping for backpacks two days before they left, and had told the salesclerk they were going on a trip.
The North demanded their return, asserting the South had violated their human rights and threatening serious consequences if South Korea did not comply. South Koreans officials firmly said, “No way.”
Official state media in the North have not reported on the defections, even as the government arranges melodramatic appeals for the foreign media.
In the North Korea capital of Pyongyang, on April 20, North Korea trotted out seven tearful young women for an exclusive interview with CNN. The women, who all claimed to be former workers at the Ningbo restaurant, pleaded for their comrades to return, and told the CNN correspondents the 13 had been tricked into leaving.
The waitresses in Pyongyang claim their manager, and a South Korean businessman, coordinated the trip under the direction of government authorities in Seoul.
“I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there,” said a sobbing Han Yun Hui. “It tears our hearts.”
In response, the South Korean Unification Ministry issued a statement to CNN: “13 defectors voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside. Following their voluntary request to defect, our government accepted them from a humanitarian point of view.”
—>snip< --- When asked if she had a message for her friends and colleagues who are now in South Korea, head waitress Choe Hye Yong made an emotional plea. “Comrade Kim Jong Un is yearning for all of you to return. We are awaiting your return, unable to sleep or eat. Please hold on a bit longer, gain victory, and come back to our country,” she said.
The restaurant (shown above) is now closed. Somewhat contradictory to the seven teary-eyed waitresses’ story, a South Korea news agency reported on April 12 that five other Ningbo workers left for an unnamed country, and are there awaiting entry in South Korea. A UPI report, on the other hand, quotes a South Korea official as saying on April 25 that seven of the 20 workers decided not to leave.
More information on the defection came Wednesday from the South’s intelligence chief, News 1 reported.
Lee Byung-ho told South Korean lawmakers that a total of 20 people were planning to defect from the Ningbo restaurant.
But at the last minute seven of the 20 decided to stay, out of concern for their families’ safety.
Comrade Kim Jong Un is yearning for all of you to return. We are awaiting your return, unable to sleep or eat. Please hold on a bit longer, gain victory, and come back to our country. — Head waitress
It’s unclear whether those seven are the same as the women who met with CNN, though.
Not to outdone, North Korea then produced video footage on April 27, allegedly showing some of the defectors’ parents tearfully pleading for their daughters to come home, saying they would come to South to collect them.
This “propaganda theater,” as The Diplomat calls it, has both the North and South using this unusual mass defection for their own political advantage. The South wants to embarrass the North, while the North hopes to discredit the defectors and the South, while simultaneously rattling its sword with missile launches and nuclear bomb tests.
Meanwhile, China has taken the unusual move of allowing the 13 to leave, quite different from its usual policy of repatriating people who sneak across the border into northeast China.
North Korea operates 130 (well, now maybe 129) restaurants around the world, serving typical North Korean dishes — which the typical North Korean probably can’t afford to eat at home — and offering music and dance performances by attractive young waitresses.
The foreign postings are seen as plum jobs, and the competition is reportedly fierce. Workers typically come from “connected” families, and their loyalty to the Kim regime is paramount. Once assigned to a foreign post, the workers are generally monitored very closely, and their mobility is limited, lest they be tempted to stray too far.
For a baker’s dozen to leave all at once, and with the apparent acquiescence of China, North Korea’s only ally, is a real kick in the pants for the regime.
It also means a harsh life for their families left behind, as the North reportedly retaliates against defections by going after the refugees’ families.
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