South Korea announced 12 North Korean women and one man defected from a state-owned restaurant in China last week
North Korea says it amounts to a "group abduction"
CNN gains exclusive access to seven waitresses from the same restaurant who say their colleagues were tricked into leaving
The door opens and seven women walk quietly into the ornate lobby of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. Their faces are expressionless. Most wear little or no makeup, black jackets, and patriotic red lapel pins.
The women, all in their 20s, represent some of the most trusted citizens in the North Korean capital. They come from good families and were chosen for the coveted assignment of working abroad to earn money for their government.
Until earlier this month, they were waitresses at a state-owned and operated restaurant in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, in southern China. Now, that restaurant is closed. And these women’s lives have become extraordinarily complicated.
“We would never leave our parents, country, and leader Kim Jong Un. None of us would ever do that,” said waitress Han Yun Hui, sobbing alongside her colleagues.
Defection or abduction?
Last week, South Korea announced 12 North Korean 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.
“The workers said that they learned about the reality in South Korea through South Korean TV, soap operas, movies and (the) internet,” said South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee at the time.
A spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross quickly denounced the apparent defections as a “group abduction” of North Korean employees “in broad daylight,” according to KCNA – the official mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s government.
Waitresses: Restaurant manager lied
The seven waitresses, presented exclusively to a CNN team in Pyongyang on Monday, are workers from the same Ningbo restaurant, who have since returned to North Korea. This is the first time they have spoken publicly. They claim the restaurant manager tricked the other 12 waitresses into leaving, by lying about their final destination.
“In mid-March our restaurant manager gathered us together and told us that our restaurant would be moved to somewhere in Southeast Asia,” said head waitress Choe Hye Yong.
Choe says by the time the manager revealed, only to her, that they would actually be defecting to South Korea, she only had time to “warn” a handful of the waitresses.
“The car was already waiting for us at that time,” Choe said as she broke down in tears.
The waitresses in Pyongyang claim their manager, and a South Korean businessman, coordinated the trip under the direction of government authorities in Seoul.
“I think about our colleagues being deceived and dragged to South Korea and facing extreme hardship there,” said a sobbing Han Yun Hui. “It tears our hearts.”
In response, the South Korean Unification Ministry issued a statement to CNN: “13 defectors voluntarily decided to leave and pushed ahead with the escape without any help from the outside. Following their voluntary request to defect, our government accepted them from a humanitarian point of view.”
China: North Koreans left legally
If true, a mass defection would be a humiliating blow to the Pyongyang leadership. Especially because it was apparently allowed by China, North Korea’s most powerful ally and trading partner. In the past, China has sent defectors back to North Korea. But last week, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang made the unusual move of commenting publicly about the case.
“After an investigation, 13 [North Korean] citizens were found exiting the Chinese border with valid passports on the early morning of April 6. It is worth noting that these people all had valid identity documents with them and exited the Chinese border in accordance with law,” he said in an April 11 press conference.
Many analysts believe China’s actions could be a sign of increased tension between Pyongyang and Beijing. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s government faces growing isolation and heightened sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs. Ongoing allegations of widespread human rights abuse made by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights continue to infuriate North Korean leadership.
Pyongyang has responded to mounting global pressure with a series of provocative shows of force. In January, Kim ordered an H-bomb test just days before his birthday. One month later, he ordered a satellite launch using a long-range rocket. And last week, an apparent attempted mid-range missile launch on the nation’s most important holiday failed.
Observers believe Kim is trying to project strength, both domestically and internationally, ahead of the crucial Worker’s Party Congress next month, when the young leader is expected to consolidate his power. South Korean government intelligence indicates a fifth North Korean nuclear test could be in the works ahead of that major political gathering.
Source of foreign income
The North Korean government is believed to subsidize its military and scientific activities by sending tens of thousands of citizens to work abroad, bringing in an estimated $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion annually, according to a U.N. report last fall.
State-owned restaurants are one way the cash-strapped regime brings in much-needed foreign currency. But the restaurants, along with other North Korean enterprises, are believed to be struggling under the heightened sanctions.
When asked if she had a message for her friends and colleagues who are now in South Korea, head waitress Choe Hye Yong made an emotional plea.
“Comrade Kim Jong Un is yearning for all of you to return. We are awaiting your return, unable to sleep or eat. Please hold on a bit longer, gain victory, and come back to our country,” she said.
Still wiping away tears, the waitresses walk back through the hotel lobby to the door they came from. Their lives are forever changed. They now face the heavy burden of explaining why their friends left home and didn’t come back.