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(2nd LD) N. Korea claims Seoul 'abducted' defectors

All Headlines 21:46 April 12, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS S. Korea's official response in paras 7-8)

SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- The Pyongyang-based Red Cross said Tuesday Seoul was behind the latest mass defection of North Koreans who worked at a state-run restaurant in China, marking the first time for the communist country to make an official comment on the issue.

In the statement delivered by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang said South Korea "lured and abducted" its citizens working overseas, adding that Seoul must make an official apology and return the defectors.

"We sternly denounce the group abduction of the citizens of the DPRK as a hideous crime against its dignity and social system and the life and security of its citizens," the KCNA said. DPRK is the acronym of North Korea's official name -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Thirteen North Korean workers at an overseas restaurant defected to South Korea en masse last week amid toughened international sanctions on Pyongyang over its latest nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea added it will take countermeasures if Seoul fails to send back the defectors.

"In case the puppet group does not send them back, it will have to pay a high price for the serious consequences to be entailed by its action," it added.

South Korea's unification ministry said Pyongyang's claim is groundless, adding that the defectors came to Seoul of their own free will.

"North Korea should take care of the livelihood of the public and give up the development of nukes and missiles that give no benefits to its people," the Ministry of Unification said in a statement.

North Korean restaurants in foreign nations have recently faced business hardships with some shutting down following stronger sanctions. They have served as one of the main sources of dollars for cash-strapped North Korea, which is suspected of using such earnings to bankroll its nuclear and missile programs.

There are more than 28,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, with some 1,280 defectors entering the South last year, according to Seoul's unification ministry.

colin@yna.co.kr
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