Earlier this month, 12 North Korean women and one man, temporarily residing and working in China, reportedly defected to South Korea after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities to send foreign currency back to their homeland.”
The defectors worked at a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, and were covertly chosen by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s leadership to work abroad to earn money for their government.
While mass defections are not uncommon in North Korea, considering the regime’s mass human rights abuses against its own people as well as the ongoing famine, what’s shocking is the accusation made by the defectors’ colleagues, who unlike their fellow waitresses, have returned to their homeland.
“We would never leave our parents, country, and leader Kim Jong-un. None of us would ever do that,” said a waitress named Han Yun Hui, claiming the other 12 women were “tricked” into leaving China.
In an interview with CNN, the tearful women explained how their restaurant manager collaborated with a South Korean executive to coordinate the trip. The servers believe government authorities in Seoul were also involved.
“In mid-March our restaurant manager gathered us together and told us that our restaurant would be moved to somewhere in Southeast Asia. The car was already waiting for us at that time,” head waitress Choe Hye Yong recalled, noting that by the time she learned they were headed to South Korea, she only had limited time to “warn” everyone.
“I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there. It tears our hearts,” she added.
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While a mass defection in itself would be a severe blow to North Korea’s pride, the fact that China — its strongest ally that has sent defectors back to Pyongyang in the past — allowed it, must be much more humiliating and troublesome for the reclusive country.
Interestingly, in an extremely rare instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Lu Kang also released a statement about the alleged defection.
“After an investigation, 13 [North Korean] citizens were found exiting the Chinese border with valid passports on the early morning of April 6,” he said during a press conference. “It is worth noting that these people all had valid identity documents with them and exited the Chinese border in accordance with law.”
With the United Nations accusing Pyongyang leadership of human rights abuse and the heightened sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program, Chinese government’s actions could also be a sign of mounting tensions between the two nations.
Meanwhile, South Korean government claims the North Korean employees entered the country on their own accord.
“The workers said that they learned about the reality in South Korea through South Korean TV, soap operas, movies and (the) internet,” said South Korean Unification Ministry representative Jeong Joon-hee.
Seemingly perturbed by these defections — and to avoid any more of them — Kim Jong-un’s regime is reportedly ordering students and workers living in China to return to North Korea.