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(LEAD) 3 N.K. overseas restaurant workers defect to S. Korea: source

All News 18:16 June 01, 2016

(ATTN: RECASTS lead; UPDATES with more info from para 2)

SEOUL, June 1 (Yonhap) -- Three North Korean women who fled from a restaurant in China have defected to South Korea, a source familiar with the matter said Wednesday, about two months after another group defected en masse.

The North Korean women in their late 20s have arrived in Seoul via Thailand after leaving a North Korean-run restaurant in the Chinese northwestern province of Shanxi, according to the source, who declined to be identified.

Another source said that they may have arrived in Seoul on either Tuesday or early Wednesday.

The latest defection is the second of its kind since 13 North Korean restaurant workers arrived in South Korea in April.

The 12 female workers and one male manager defected to Seoul after escaping a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo.

The Seoul government said that tougher international sanctions and mounting pressure by Pyongyang to send money home played a part in the restaurant staff opting to escape.

Seoul confirmed on May 24 that an unspecified number of North Korean restaurant workers have recently fled their workplaces, but it declined to reveal details, citing their safety and diplomatic impact.

Pyongyang has claimed that South Korea kidnapped the group of North Koreans who defected to Seoul in April, calling on Seoul to immediately send them back home. Seoul has countered that the North Koreans defected on their own free will.

Overseas restaurants operated by North Korea have served as one of the main sources of hard currency for North Korea, with which the North is suspected of bankrolling its nuclear and missile programs.

Such restaurants are known to be facing financial difficulty after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) slapped tougher sanctions on Pyongyang for its January nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in February.

South Korea estimates that North Korea is running approximately 130 restaurants in around 12 countries, including China, Vietnam and Cambodia, earning US$10 million annually.

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