A number of North Koreans working in a state-run restaurant in China have defected in the second such occurrence in two months. Government officials in Seoul confirmed that the small group recently fled their workplace, amid reports they were now waiting to be flown to South Korea via a third country.
The South Korean unification ministry did not provide further details on the escapees' exact number, identities and whereabouts citing concerns about their safety. "It is a fact that North Koreans have recently fled an overseas restaurant," a ministry official, told Yonhap news agency. "But we cannot confirm anything about their current situation."
Local media had earlier reported the defectors were two or three women working at Pyongyang-managed restaurant in Xian or Shanghai. The incident came just a month after the male manager and 12 waitresses of another North Korean restaurant in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo sought shelter in Seoul and is likely to infuriate the secretive nation's leadership.
In April, Pyongyang warned of "unimaginable serious consequences" if the workers were not returned, accusing the South of kidnap but Seoul denied the claims. North Korea runs about 130 diners abroad, including over 90 in China and some in Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The diners are estimated to generate between $10m and $40m a year and represent a valuable source of hard currency for the sanction-stricken government. According to South Korea's National Intelligence Service up to 60,000 North Koreans work overseas to generate foreign income on behalf of Kim Jong-un's dictatorship.
South Korean media said the restaurants have been hit hard by the last round of sanctions, while Seoul had also advised its nationals travelling abroad to avoid them. Government pressure to make up for the lost revenue and meet production targets might have caused workers to flee, the Chosun Ilbo reported.
"North Korean workers are quickly summoned back to Pyongyang and punished if they don't achieve their quota," the source told the newspaper. "The latest defections were probably triggered by increasing pressure to meet quotas." The defectors swelled the more than 29,000 North Koreans who have fled to the South since the end of Korean War in 1953, according to Seoul.