North Korea claims 13 restaurant workers tricked into defecting by South Korean spies

A passport and Chinese documents held by one of the 13 North Korean restaurant workers stationed in China who defected to South Korea.
A passport and Chinese documents held by one of the 13 North Korean restaurant workers stationed in China who defected to South Korea.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - Pyongyang's state media on Friday (April 15) claimed that a group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in China had been tricked into defecting by South Korean spies.

The 13 - a male manager and 12 female employees of a Pyongyang-run restaurant - arrived in Seoul last week, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

North Korea's propaganda website Uriminzokkiri claimed that the manager, who it said was bribed by South Korean spies, had tricked the 12 others into thinking they were going to a new workplace.

"The manager, in connivance with (South Korean) spies, tricked the employees into believing that they were moving to a different workplace in a far-off place" before putting them on a plane, it said in a commentary.

It said the "abduction" was part of the South's "heinous" anti-Pyongyang smear campaign.

South Koean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee said the 13 had been under pressure to meet their quota for hard currency remittances to Pyongyang and had become disillusioned with the North's propaganda after being exposed to the foreign media.

The South Korean government estimates Pyongyang rakes in around US$10 million every year from some 130 restaurants it operates - with mostly North Korean staff - in 12 countries, including neighbouring China.

South Korean daily Hankyoreh Sinmun quoted the Chinese owner of the restaurant in Ningbo, in eastern Zhejiang province, as saying the manager had stolen more than 1.2 million yuan from the restaurant, which had a total of 20 North Korean employees.

The seven remaining North Koreans were staying with North Korean embassy officials and were expected to return home, the owner was quoted as telling the paper.

The 13 defectors were still incommunicado, being questioned by the South Korean authorities.

The North's Red Cross spokesman Tuesday claimed the 13 were kidnapped by the South and demanded it apologise and return them immediately or face "unimaginable consequences and strong countermeasures".

Separately, the North Korean website also accused Seoul of trying to influence South Korea's parliamentary elections held on Wednesday.

A seemingly unstable North Korea has traditionally worked in favour of the ruling conservative party.

But President Park Geun Hye's ruling Saenuri Party suffered a shock electoral defeat that broke its 16-year parliamentary majority and threatened its chances of retaining the presidential Blue House in 2017.