Group defection by N. Koreans points to impact of U.N. sanctions: experts
The latest defection by North Koreans working at an overseas restaurant may indicate that toughened international sanctions have begun to generate an impact by cutting off a source of hard currency for Pyongyang, experts said.
A group of 13 North Koreans from a restaurant in an unidentified nation made an unusual defection to South Korea en masse this week, Seoul's unification ministry said Friday.
The latest case came as the U.N. Security Council and major countries have slapped tougher sanctions on North Korea for its January nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in February.
North Korean restaurants have served as one of the main sources of dollars for North Korea, which is suspected of bankrolling the North's nuclear and missile programs.
"As the international community has imposed sanctions on the North, North Korean restaurants in foreign countries are known to be feeling the pinch," Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, told a press briefing. "North Koreans in overseas restaurants are believed to be under heavy pressure to send money to their country."
Experts said that the North Korean workers might have decided to flee due to fears they may be punished, as their operations hit a snag amid the tougher sanctions.
"North Korean workers at overseas restaurants usually have a good social status in the North," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "The defectors have most likely made the decision to come to the South because they thought they would face punishment for weak performance once they returned to the North."
South Korea estimates that North Korea is running approximately 130 restaurants in some 12 countries including China, Vietnam and Cambodia, earning US$10 million annually, according to government sources.
More such restaurants have recently faced business hardships, with some shutting down, they said, as Seoul has asked its nationals, who make up a large part of the customer base, to not use North Korean restaurants in China and other nations in an effort to further cut down the source of income for Pyongyang.
North Koreans in overseas restaurants are among some 50,000 workers sent abroad by the regime to earn hard currency, a move aimed at averting a series of past U.N. sanctions.
The North's export of workers has been in the spotlight amid a growing need to tackle the North's human rights abuses and its defiant pursuit of missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.
Around $200 to $300 million is presumed to be sent to the North's regime annually from these forced overseas laborers.
"The defection case reflects North Koreans' expression of their complaints about the regime. It also means that the latest U.N. sanctions have begun to have practical impacts on curbing the North," said Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS).
Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se told state-run broadcaster KBS that additional defections by North Koreans may follow in reaction to the North's possible move to tighten its supervision of overseas laborers.
"The government thinks that the latest group defection seems to be motivated by people seeking freedom. A similar move is likely to follow down the road," the policymaker said.
Seoul's top diplomat remained cautious about whether the U.N. sanctions resulted in their defection, but he said that many countries including South Korea believe that the punitive actions are effective.
Kim Heung-kwang, the head of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a think tank set up by defectors, said that the latest defection may be related to the major party event set for May.
North Korea is preparing to hold the ruling party's first congress in more than three decades in early May.
Pyongyang is mobilizing all of its people by pressing them to work hard even at night and on weekends, according to sources familiar with North Korea. The North is also pushing its government organs to collect money for the party event, as the U.N. sanctions are making it harder for the regime to secure hard currency.
"The group defection came amid the North's push to put pressure on its overseas workers to send more dollars ahead of the party event. I see that such a possibility may be linked to their defection," Kim said.
Experts said that North Korea is widely expected to blame South Korea for what it would call the kidnapping of its nationals. The North's state media has not unveiled any official report on the defection.
"North Korea is expected to label the latest defection as an abduction by the South Korean government," said Moon at the INSS.
"The government should brace for the possibility that the North could try to kidnap South Korean nationals at border areas," he added. (Yonhap)