The recent mass defection of 13 North Korean restaurant workers is a humiliating blow to the Pyongyang leadership. Especially because it was apparently allowed by China, North Korea’s most powerful ally and trading partner. In the past, China has sent defectors back to North Korea.
In an April 11 press conference, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang made the unusual move of commenting publicly about the case. “After an investigation, 13 [North Korean] citizens were found exiting the Chinese border with valid passports on the early morning of April 6. It is worth noting that these people all had valid identity documents with them and exited the Chinese border in accordance with law,” he said.
Many analysts believe China’s actions could be a sign of increased tension between Pyongyang and Beijing. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s government faces growing isolation and heightened sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs. Ongoing allegations of widespread human rights abuse made by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights continue to infuriate North Korean leadership.
Pyongyang has responded to mounting global pressure with a series of provocative shows of force. Observers believe Kim is trying to project strength, both domestically and internationally, ahead of the crucial Worker’s Party Congress next month, when the young leader is expected to consolidate his power. South Korean government intelligence indicates a fifth North Korean nuclear test could be in the works ahead of that major political gathering.