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(2nd LD) Future mass N. Korean defections can't be ruled out: unification ministry

All Headlines 18:47 April 10, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 14-16)

SEOUL, April 10 (Yonhap) -- Future mass defection by North Koreans working abroad cannot be ruled out following the recent escape of 13 people, South Korea's unification ministry said Sunday.

Speaking to reporters, a ministry official explained that considerable pressure to send back hard currency to Pyongyang in the face of tough United Nations sanctions played a part in the restaurant workers' defection.

The government hinted earlier that the defectors were fearful that they would be punished if they were unable to send back money to North Korea. Many restaurants have been forced to close due to a drop in patrons, with estimates placing roughly half of them unable to send money back to the North.

The official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one restaurant serving staff testified that with tough sanctions taking hold, people felt there was no hope for the North Korean regime.

He said a second worker confirmed she watched South Korean TV dramas and knew about life in the South, while another said she realized what happiness was really like while living abroad, and did not want to go back to the North.

"They expressed a desire to live their lives as South Koreans and believed the joint action was their last chance to get away from the North," the official said. He added the defectors had Internet connection to the outside world, which is not possible inside their isolationist homeland.

"Such information (about the world at large) caused them to crave freedom," the official claimed.

The ministry insider said that the one manager and 12 workers who arrived in Seoul on Thursday were all from upper middle class families, which in itself is meaningful.

"The move by such people holding status in the North is bound to have some impact on North Korea (as a whole)," he said.

On the current overall circumstances surrounding the Korean Peninsula, the ministry official said Pyongyang is continuing to show its defiance against the latest set of sanctions and could opt to lash out. This, he said, makes the present state very grave.

"Depending on how well Seoul handles the present situation, we can open a new chapter of change on the peninsula," he claimed.

The ministry said that with the U.N. sanctions taking bite, North Korea is finding it harder to carry out financial transactions, while many of its overseas operations have come under restrictions from foreign governments. It said even the shipment of money by couriers is becoming difficult with many foreign companies shying away from conducting transactions with North Korean counterparts for fear they too will be penalized.

North Korea is known to operate some 130 restaurants generating some US$10 million in cash inflow for the North Korean regime annually.

A ministry official said a growing number of North Korean people are disgruntled at the worsening economic conditions following the international sanctions.

"There are some signs of their grievances possibly leading to a social ferment," said the official, adding that a series of nuclear tests and missile launches, hailed there as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's feat, are not having positive impact on ordinary people in the communist state.

But another ministry official said prices of rice and other daily necessities in cities near the Chinese border have risen, but not sharply. "It will take some time (for international sanctions) to seriously affect the North's trade," the official said.

Related to the defection, Seoul's foreign ministry also clarified to the media the 13 North Koreans made their escape on their own.

The ministry sidestepped questions on whether it worked with foreign governments to expedite the defection, but emphasized it was the North Koreans who made the decision to flee.

There has been speculation that the North Koreans had passports with them so they were able to legally move across borders.

The ministry said because there is a chance that other mass defections could take place, it is moving to work more closely with other governments to handle all eventualities.

yonngong@yna.co.kr
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