North Korea’s largest recent defector group arrives in South Korea

In one of the largest known group defections of North Koreans in recent years, 13 restaurant workers have arrived together in South Korea. The group of one male manager and 12 female employees were based at a restaurant in an undisclosed country outside North Korea and reached South Korea on Thursday, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The defection is unusual because of the size of the group and because North Koreans who are allowed to work abroad are regarded among the most loyal to the Pyongyang regime. Group defections by North Koreans are also usually by families or those with very close ties because of a culture of individuals informing on each other to the authorities.

International efforts to crack down on North Korea’s sources of funding for its nuclear weapons program may have increased demands on restaurant workers to send remittances. North Korea operates some 130 restaurants in 12 countries, a source of around $10 million annually for Pyongyang, according to the ministry.

The South Korean government spokesman also cited the defectors’ exposure to TV shows, movies and the Internet as a likely contributing factor for their decision to come to South Korea. Access to foreign information and media is highly restricted inside North Korea.

The official said it was the first group defection from a North Korean restaurant. The largest single group of North Koreans to seek South Korean residency in recent years was a group of nine people in 2011, according to the official.

The overall number of annual defectors from North Korea has fallen sharply since Kim Jong Un took power at the end of 2011 and tightened the nation’s borders. Last year, 1,276 North Koreans defected to South Korea, down from a recent peak of almost 3,000 in 2009.

[Wall Street Journal]