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(LEAD) Speculation grows over China's role in mass defection

All News 17:35 April 11, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS Beijing's remarks on mass defection in 5th para)

SEOUL, April 11 (Yonhap) -- Following the en-masse defection last week of 13 North Koreans who worked at a state-run restaurant in China, speculation is growing over whether Beijing played any role in facilitating their perilous journey to South Korea.

Given the traditional ties with its ally Pyongyang, Beijing could not have publicly or actively supported the defection, observers said, noting that they might have knowingly condoned the defectors' attempts to head to the South via a third country in Southeast Asia.

A government source here said that Beijing might have been aware of the defection given that it was rare that North Korean workers in China defected to the South in droves.

"It is difficult to believe that the 13 people carrying North Korean passports were able to move out of China without the Chinese authorities' knowledge," the source said on the condition of anonymity.

Amid the burgeoning speculation over Beijing's role, its Foreign Ministry said that the defectors left China legitimately with passports, and that they were different from illegal border crossers potentially subject to punishment.

Some observers said that given that the mass defection took place in a short period of time, some help from the Chinese authorities might have been inevitable. The North Korean workers at the restaurant reportedly disappeared early last week and arrived in the South on Thursday.

Others, however, said that China did not need to offer any "diplomatically risky" assistance to the defectors since they all held legitimate passports, with which they could purchase flight tickets and leave China without any legal problems.

Citing diplomatic concerns, the Seoul government has refused to confirm whether the restaurant where the 13 defectors worked was located in China.

The defection came as Beijing has vowed to fully enforce international sanctions that the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) adopted early last month to punish Pyongyang's latest provocations -- a move that the North said is tantamount to succumbing to America's political pressure.

The sanctions include the mandatory inspection of all cargo going in and out of the North and a ban on the North's export of coal, iron and other mineral resources, a crucial source of hard currency for the impoverished country.

The North's overseas restaurants have also been cited as an important source of revenue. As part of its standalone sanctions on the North, the South has recently called on its tourists to refrain from using North Korean overseas restaurants.

Pyongyang is known to operate some 130 restaurants in 12 countries, including China, Russia, Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as Hong Kong, raking in huge sums of money annually. Nearly 100 of the restaurants are in China.


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