Dozens of North Korean restaurants abroad closed or suspended: South Korea

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China on April 12, 2016.
Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China on April 12, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - Dozens of North Korean restaurants abroad have closed or suspended business as visitor numbers plunge because of growing international pressure on the isolated state, Seoul's spy agency said on Wednesday (April 27).

The network of more than 100 restaurants abroad - where young North Korean women entertain customers with dancing and singing - has been a valued source of hard currency for the impoverished country.

Seoul last month told South Koreans to boycott North Korean restaurants abroad, saying a decrease in use would block the foreign currency cash flow, amid widespread condemnation over the North's nuclear and missile tests.

"More than 20 restaurants in China and UAE suspended or closed businesses as the number of visitors nosedived and their financial conditions eroded," Mr Lee Cheol Woo, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, said after being briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

The UN Security Council in March slapped the toughest-ever sanctions on the North in response to the atomic and missile tests, staged in January and February in violation of existing UN resolutions.

Since then, many countries joined efforts to pressure Pyongyang by banning North Korean ships from their ports, Mr Lee said.

To dodge the sanctions, the North is changing the names of the companies and other organisations listed on the UN sanctions on official documents and forging trade papers, he added.

"They are forging papers for exports and imports to smuggle items that are banned under the sanctions and making officials transport cash themselves (instead of bank transfer)," he said.

The network of overseas North Korean restaurants came under the spotlight earlier this month, when a group of 13 workers at one of the restaurants in China defected to the South.

Such group defections are rare, especially by the overseas restaurant staff who are generally handpicked from families that are "loyal" to the regime.

Initially a group of 20 workers at the restaurant sought defection but seven of them later gave up over safety concerns for their families in the North, Mr Lee said.

Anyone caught fleeing the country can be subject to harsh punishment, as can the families of those who successfully defect.

Tension has been running high on the divided peninsula, as Pyonyang is said to be preparing for a fifth nuclear test around a landmark ruling party congress on May 6.

Leader Kim Jong Un is expected to take credit for pushing the country's weapons programmes to new heights during the first party congress in 36 years.