Individual defections from the North Korea are common. Mass defections, however, are not.
13 North Koreans—one male and 12 females—recently defected en masse. The arrival of so many North Koreans in Seoul is stunning. First, they had all worked at the same location, and this fact indicates a breakdown in Pyongyang’s overlapping system of controls on its workers. Moreover, the defections hint at the effectiveness of the U.N. sanctions imposed at the beginning of last month. And, most strikingly, Beijing did not stop the North Koreans from escaping.
The defectors had all worked in one of the 100 or so restaurants Pyongyang operates in China, this one in the eastern port city of Ningbo, just south of Shanghai. The North has opened about 130 eateries in China and a couple dozen other countries. The establishments are money spinners for the regime, producing about $10 million annually in cash according to a recent estimate.
The South Korean government hinted, in Yonhap’s words, that “defectors were fearful that they would be punished if they were unable to send back money to North Korea.” The concern is real. “The latest defections are probably related to this kind of pressure felt by the workers,” a source told the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most popular news source.
The new UN sanctions look like they already have had some effect. Some restaurants have been forced to close due to a recent drop in business, and there are indications that now about half of them are not breaking even. Another reason: the South Korean government has been urging its citizens, a main source of revenue, to stay away.