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(2nd LD) 13 N. Koreans from overseas restaurant defect to S. Korea: Seoul

All Headlines 18:47 April 08, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more in paras 3, 6-13; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, April 8 (Yonhap) -- A group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in a foreign country defected en masse to South Korea this week, Seoul's unification ministry said Friday, as the U.N. Security Council has slapped tougher sanctions on the North.

The defectors -- one male manager and 12 female employees at a restaurant in an unidentified nation -- arrived in South Korea on Thursday, the ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said.

Overseas restaurants operated by North Korea are known to be facing difficulties in doing business after the U.N. Security Council's (UNSC) sanctions on Pyongyang for its January nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in February went into effect. The drop in customers has been compounded by Seoul asking its nationals to not use North Korean restaurants in China and other nations.

Such restaurants have served as one of the main sources of hard currency for North Korea, which is suspected of bankrolling the North's nuclear and missile programs.

The government declined to reveal the route the defectors took or detailed personal information about them.

"As the international community has slapped 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."

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.

North Koreans in overseas restaurants are among some 50,000 workers sent abroad by the regime to earn much-needed dollars to help it sidestep the string of past U.N. sanctions.

The North's export of workers has received a growing spotlight due to the need to address the North's human rights abuses and its defiant pursuit of missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.

The spokesman said that the latest defection indicates that the tougher U.N. sanctions have begun to generate impacts on curbing the North.

The ministry said that it marked the first time that an entire group of North Koreans at the same restaurant has opted to come to South Korea at once.

"The government has accepted their request to come to South Korea on humanitarian grounds," Jeong said.

The spokesman said that the North Koreans recently decided to defect to Seoul because they realized the reality of South Korea by watching South Korean TV dramas and movies and were disillusioned with the North's ideological campaigns.

It is also unusual for South Korea to publicly confirm North Koreans' defections, as Seoul usually keeps a low-key stance about the issue.

"The government has decided to unveil the case as it is rare that a group of North Koreans has defected to South Korea under the U.N. sanctions regime," Jeong said.

The ministry said that the government will conduct an evaluation of the defectors to find out the exact motivations for their defection and other details.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
(END)

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