The North Korean government is calling a mass defection by 13 restaurant workers who fled to South Korea a “group abduction,” accusing Seoul of kidnapping their citizens “in broad daylight.”
“South Korean authorities lured and abducted a group of DPRK employees in broad daylight” is how Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is reporting the mass defection of workers, most daughters of high-ranking communist officials within North Korea, from their place of employment to South Korea. The group has sought political asylum in the country, according to South Korean officials, who typically do not announce North Korean citizen defections, but did so in this extraordinary case.
“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 statement continues.
The group of 13 were believed to be working in a restaurant run in China by the North Korean government, catering to wealthy clients who enjoy the dancing and singing of female performers. The group includes the restaurant manager, a man, and 12 female employees. KCNA responded with their statement a week after Seoul confirmed the group’s arrival into South Korea, demanding an apology from South Korea and the return of the defectors, whom they claim were subjected to “all sorts of appeasement, deception and gimmicks.”
As is typical in North Korean public statements, Pyongyang threatened “unimaginable serious consequences and severe punishment” if the defectors were not sent back north.
Before North Korean confirmed the defection, many in South Korea, particularly opposition politicians, were slow to believe the story, alleging that the ruling government of President Park Geun-hye may have fabricated the story to garner support for her party as national elections approach. Both the North Korean and Chinese governments have addressed the story as true, however. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang confirmed that the defectors had not entered China illegally, but had “valid exit documents” as well as work permits, and China had no participation in their escape.
The Wall Street Journal notes that an estimated 50,000 North Korean citizens live and work outside of the country with permission from Pyongyang, most the children of high-ranking officials who are considered among the nation’s most loyal to the regime of dictator Kim Jong-un. They are expected not only to make revenue for the government through what they sell in the restaurant, but are to send most of their salaries back home. The newspaper cites a South Korean government spokesman as suggesting this might have led them to choosing to defect, as well as exposure to outside media, like television shows and the Internet.
South Korea relies heavily on pop culture to incite defection, broadcasting the latest pop music hits over loudspeakers on the border along with anti-Kim messages.
The mass abduction was the first of two major announcements of its kind this week. South Korean also confirmed the defecting of the highest-ranking North Korean soldier known so far, an army colonel who worked in North Korean intelligence.
Sanctions on North Korea have made it more difficult for the regime to keep its supporters fed and the few government-controlled businesses running, potentially fueling these defections. The Korea Times reported this week that a study found a 17.5 percent increase in North Korean defectors between January and March of 2016 compared to 2015.
Despite the signs of further economic and social decay in the country, North Korea appears keen on continuing its weapons development. CNN reported Tuesday that new satellite images appear to show the nation preparing for what the news outlet describes as “an unprecedented launch of a mobile ballistic missile which could potentially hit portions of the U.S.” Officials are quick to note that North Korean officials might opt not to execute the test, but the technology appears to exist. Should these missile tests occur, they would be the first of their kind in North Korea.