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Inside library dedicated to North Korea
02:33 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The 13 had worked at a restaurant run by North Korea's government in an unspecified country

They felt pressure to send money back to North Korea, a South Korean government spokesman says

They also learned, through South Korean media, "how North Korea's propaganda was fabricated," he says

CNN  — 

They’d left North Korea to work at a restaurant owned and operated by the reclusive Asian nation.

And they’re not going back.

Instead, these 12 women and one man defected after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities” to send foreign currency back to their homeland, according to a South Korean government spokesman.

“Our government decided to accept them on humanitarian grounds,” South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said Friday.

A day earlier, the 13 arrived in Seoul. Jeong would not say how they’d escaped or which country they’d come from – a handful of countries around Asia have restaurants like the ones they apparently worked in. They haven’t talked to the media, with the Seoul government only releasing a single photo of them walking with their bags, their faces blurred or covered with masks and hair.

The South Korean spokesman may have offered a clue when he said, “The group said that they are feeling tense and fatigued from long-distance traveling.” Another hint was that they’d been somewhere with ready access to South Korean media – which, according to Jeong, spurred their decision.

“The workers said that they learned about the reality in South Korea through South Korean TV, soap operas, movies and (the) Internet,” he said, implying that this ran counter to Pyongyang’s overwhelmingly negative depiction of its longtime rival. “(They also) learned about how North Korea’s propaganda was fabricated.”

A spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross denounced the apparent defection as a “group abduction” of DPRK employees “in broad daylight,” a report in North Korean state media says.

“The south Korean authorities should bear in mind that unless they apologize for the hideous abduction and send those abductees back, they will face unimaginable serious consequences and severe punishment,” a North Korean Red Cross statement, reproduced in KCNA, the official mouthpiece of Kim Jong Un’s regime, says.

Odd reality behind Shanghai’s Pyongyang restaurants

Thousands of North Koreans work abroad

North Korea offered no immediate public response to the claims. Defections are hardly unprecedented for the country – one of the world’s poorest and most isolated, in large part because of its leaders’ defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and saber-rattling directed at South Korea, the United States and others.

It’s rarer when defections involve North Koreans working abroad in a state-run establishment who leave en masse.

“This is a peculiar example,” Jeong said, “for North Koreans living abroad to defect in a group.”

Few North Koreans ever leave at all. Still, a small number do go abroad to work at Pyongyang restaurants, a chain run by North Korea’s government. There, patrons dine on North Korean food and waitresses sing, including intermittent vocal tributes to their country’s leaders, past and present.

How willingly they do all this, of course, is impossible to fathom. Few dare to speak out, particularly against their authoritarian government.

One thing that’s clear is that these restaurant workers aren’t alone. A 2014 study by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies estimated more than 50,000 North Koreans worked abroad, many in mining, logging, textiles and construction. A South Korean government official told CNN last year the total probably hovers around 100,000.

What makes restaurant workers different is that they’d served as ambassadors, of sorts, for North Korea. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have to give back, along the lines of a U.N. report last fall that accused Kim Jong Un’s government of pocketing $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion from citizens working abroad.

“The numbers have grown,” Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said in October. “I think it reflects the really tight financial and economic situation in the North.”

Jeong, the South Korean government spokesman, said this system, which he characterized as bribes from foreign workers to Pyongyang officials, factored into the restaurant workers’ mass defection.

He added, “There needs to be an investigation into this.”

North Koreans reject alleged rights abuses