April 11, 2016 11:16
North Korea watchers are cautiously optimistic that the defection of 13 North Korean workers from a restaurant in China may be a sign that international sanctions against the North are proving effective.
Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters on Friday that references to an "arduous march" by North Korea's state media, a term recalling the deadly famine of the 1990s, demonstrates the "pain" felt by the North's regime.
Seoul has implemented its own sanctions against Pyongyang and told citizens not to frequent restaurants run by the North in countries like China, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Customer numbers have dwindled as a result, and over the past two months three out of seven North Korean restaurants in Cambodia have closed down, as well as some in China that depend largely on South Korean tour groups.
But the North Korean regime is pressuring the remaining restaurants to send back more money as the first Workers Party congress in 36 years approaches.
"If they fail to obey orders, workers overseas are recalled to Pyongyang and punished," a source said. "The latest defections are probably related to this kind of pressure felt by the workers."
The ministry spokesman said statements from the 13 defectors support the view that other North Korean restaurants are feeling the pressure.
The latest defection could be a significant psychological blow to the more than 50,000 North Koreans working in restaurants abroad. If North Korean authorities tighten surveillance even further, more defections could result.
Another interesting point is that the latest defections occurred in China, home of around 80 percent of North Korea's overseas restaurants. The defected workers had been employed in Yanji in Jilin province but moved to Ningbo in Zhejiang province when sales declined considerably.
The head of the South Korean residents’ association in Yanbian in Jilin province told Voice of America that five North Korean restaurants in Yanji have money problems as customers dwindled. He said the financial impact must be "huge," since South Koreans account for 30 to 40 percent of customers and during peak vacation season at Mt. Barkdu for 80 percent.
The head of the South Korean residents' association in Shenyang in Liaoning province said its voluntary decisions to avoid the 30 North Korean restaurants in the region have made things tough for the establishments.
VOA also quoted Chinese officials as saying Beijing has grown reluctant to extend the employment visas of North Koreans since the UN Security Council's sanctions, which means some do not have enough staff.
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