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Thirteen North Korean Restaurant Workers Have Defected to the South

A South Korean official said on Friday that the defectors couldn't meet the demands imposed by North Korean authorities on minimum amounts of their pay to be send back to Pyongyang.

by Samuel Oakford
Apr 8 2016, 10:00pm

South Korean people watch TV news at Seoul station, in Seoul, South Korea, 18 March 2016. (Jean Heon-Kyun/EPA)

Thirteen North Korean restaurant workers based in an unnamed country have defected to South Korea, according to the government in Seoul.

South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said on Friday that the laborers arrived a day prior, but wouldn't give details on where they travelled from. He said that the defectors, 12 women and one man, reported that during their time working they couldn't meet the demands imposed by North Korean authorities on minimum amounts of money to be sent back to Pyongyang.

"The workers," added Jeong, "said that they learned about the reality in South Korea through South Korean TV, soap operas, movies and (the) internet."

North Koreans commonly defect to the South, but it is rare for a large group based abroad to find passage to South Korea.

According to studies cited by the UN, some 50,000 North Korean laborers are based in foreign countries, earning Pyongyang anywhere between $1.2 and $2.3 billion per year.

Marzuku Darusman, the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, released a report last year which found workers are often paid paltry wages of between $120 and $150 per month. He said that the North Korean regime is paid "significantly higher amounts" for providing labor to foreign nations — revenue that lines the pockets of officials rather than the workers that the Communist country is exploiting.

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But not all of this work is seen as dismal by many North Koreans. Some accounts suggest that the hermit kingdom's citizens compete for certain jobs abroad, and that certain positions may be reserved for those considered most loyal to the regime. Working in a restaurant abroad may often be preferable to harsh conditions inside the DPRK.

The vast majority of North Koreans are sent to Russia and China, but laborers are also reportedly found in places like Algeria, Poland, Myanmar, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Malaysia, as well as three Gulf nations: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Workers with families in North Korea are preferred, because their relatives can be used as leverage to "ensure they will fully comply while abroad," wrote Darusman.

The report outlined conditions in other industries, like logging, construction, and textiles, that can be exceedingly dangerous. Some laborers are forced to work as many as 20 hours each day and given only a day or two off in a month. Government officials confiscate their passports and keep laborers under constant surveillance.

With the exception of logging operations in Russia that date to the Soviet Union, most of Pyongyang's arrangements began on a large scale within the last decade and a half, according to Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University.

"Starting in the early 2000s, the North Korean government began to send workers in these official capacities, and it seems in the last several years this has expanded considerably," he said in an interview last year.

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Armstrong noted that he had personally encountered North Korean workers in Cambodia and Mongolia, where they were working in restaurants and at construction sites.

"It's very hard to lump everyone together, from North Korean loggers in Siberia who do work under pretty appalling conditions to North Korean waitresses in Chinese restaurants who actually live pretty well," he said.

In Cambodia and parts of China, it isn't uncommon to find North Korean workers running Korean restaurants that are sanctioned by Pyongyang.

"They actually charge rather high prices," Armstrong said.