SEOUL–It was not so much the news as timing that seemed to matter.

When the government broke the news of 13 North Korean restaurant workers defecting to South Korea in the heat of the April 13 parliamentary election campaign, opposition party candidates promptly called it foul. “President Park Geun-hye is trying to influence voting by subtly using (the) North Korean defection story,” cried Ahn Cheol-soo, the liberal head of the newly formed opposition People’s Party.

Announcing major new defections five days ahead of the voting date can certainly have the effect of boosting the image of a governing party that’s coping with the North Korean nuclear blackmail that’s bedeviling not only South Korea, but the United States and Japan.

But such knee-jerk cynicism runs the risk of obscuring the serious development that seems to be emerging within the tight regime of dictator Kim Jong-un, the most secretive autocrat in the world.

Since the start of the Great Famine in 1995, more than 18,000 North Koreans have trickled out of the impoverished country. They are mostly miners and collective farm tillers along the 1,300-km border with China. Only a small fraction of them came from better-provided regions of Pyongan or Hwanghae provinces further to the south.

North Korean restaurant defectors

Defector pattern shifting

That pattern seems to be changing. Ironically, the flow of defectors seems to be taking a new, unforeseen course, just as Kim Jong-un is attacking the problem of chronic food shortages. As China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang noted in one of his recent briefings, the 13 restaurant workers — who comprised 12 waitresses and their male manager — were not “illegal migrants” jumping the border without valid papers. “They all had valid exit documents,” Lu noted, rejecting Pyongyang’s angry suggestion that China had “colluded” in arranging “the kidnapping by South Korean agents of DPRK nationals.” In short, the defectors were legitimate North Korean passport holders free to travel in and out of China, Lu said. They even had official work permits.

So the major embarrassment of this saga is traceable to their social-political status within their own country. As daughters of senior party and government officials, they were all art college graduates in Pyongyang, clearly a privileged trusted class, capable of dancing and playing musical instruments. They were a world apart from the class of loggers in Siberia or workers on construction sites in Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries. This is why five days of stunned silence elapsed before North Korean authorities issued a statement calling the defection a “South Korean kidnapping” and an “intolerable provocation.”

Espionage and girls on menu

Pyongyang runs about 120 restaurants in Asia, Europe and Africa. They are government-run businesses designed to earn foreign exchange for the hard-pressed state. About a hundred of these are scattered across China. They are clearly intended to take advantage of large numbers of foreign tourists, including those from South Korea. In a show of sympathy and understanding, the Chinese government has winked at these establishments. With their pricey menu, they cater mostly to high-spending South Korean residents or other foreigners. Tourists from Seoul eager to sample traditional Korean cuisine unadulterated by modern “fusion” fares they get in Seoul claim a majority of clients. Getting served by attractive, leggy North Korean beauties is an added incentive. For managers, appointed by the ministry of state security, it’s also a good place to eavesdrop on conversation from guests.

North Korean restaurant entertainers

But for waitresses who thought they have left their drab life back home, mostly by palm-greasing and string-pulling, their life abroad in China, Cambodia and elsewhere is far from easy. They face barracks-like surveillance and discipline. Their passports are seized and kept by restaurant managers to deter them from escaping. They shop on local markets only in twos or threes, one to keep watch on the others. Even under such tight surveillance, love can sometime blossom out of unspoken glances with South Korean clients, resulting in movie-like breakouts. (This happened in Siem Reap, Cambodia — but whether this particular romance led to the altar in Seoul isn’t known.)

Life, Zhejiang style

To help alleviate the drudgery of camp-like life in the tropics, supervisors allow them to watch local TV programs. That, however, can be a fatal attraction, as happened with the 12 waitresses in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. Stations all over Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Cambodia to China are running popular romance dramas from South Korea (like Descendants of the Sun?). This gives them a shockingly fresh picture of the affluent, free lifestyles in South Korea. The Ningbo defectors arrived in Seoul dressed in tight-jeans, wearing Adidas sneakers and brand name copy handbags. All this is a testament to their repressed longing for South Korean fashion.

In recent months, though, more hardcore types are voting with their feet. They range from civilian and military spies, trade and banking officials (some of them absconding with millions of dollars in their care), diplomats and students, garrison soldiers in uniform, waitresses, logging camp labor supervisors, workers, even waifs abandoned in border villages. They come from a variety of places, ranging from China to Russia, from Southeast Asia to Africa. The joke in Seoul is that some may soon arrive from Cuba, which is loosening up and opening relations with the US. Cuba is already taking tourists from Seoul.

Seoul is also attracting some top-notch defectors. One of them is said to be a big shot who defected two years ago. A father and son fled from China. The father was a North Korean senior army colonel from the Bureau of General Reconnaissance. This is a top sabotage unit credited with the torpedo-attack against a South Korean frigate in 2000 that broke the vessel in two, killing 46 sailors aboard. The unit also was involved in an abortive assassination plot against Hwang Jang Yop, a top North Korean party ideologue who had defected to Seoul, as well as recent waves of cyber attacks against the South.

Pressures piling up

As for restaurant operators, the reason for absconding is relentless pressure from Pyongyang to generate more business income and send more money to Pyongyang. Collectively, they reportedly send about $30 million a year. It’s often a non-negotiable quota. Failure to meet it can mean repatriation back home. Waitresses are paid $15 to $50 per month in salary. 

UN sanctions piling up on North Korean economic entities since March following the North’s nuclear test in January is adding to the pressures. It has put a full stop to South Korean clients going to North Korean restaurants, practically emptying them. In the case of Ningbo, business has gone so badly that the manager himself decided to run with all his waitresses in tow, after finding it hard to meet the remittance order from Pyongyang. It’s safe to assume that South Korean consulate in Shanghai was more than obliged to help him get out of the hardship.

Getting overseas posting, preferably in the neighboring China where they can operate relatively easily in the sea of free-wheeling local community, has long been a consuming passion of Pyongyang’s nomenclature. But this vital route to freedom looks set to be narrowed after the Ningbo defections. The home government is sending dozens of “inspection” teams all over China to screen potential defectors, reports in Dandong, Yanji, Shenyang and other northeastern region say.

Kim Jong-un

Moreover, it seems Kim Jong-un’s terror-driven campaign punctuated by frequent executions of top officials is inadvertently fueling the defections. And significantly, cracks in the system are opening in the middle of the state’s core structure, and not so much at the top. This is a familiar sign when communist systems begin to distintegrate.

China’s cooling relations with Pyongyang can also help to expedite this trend. But it is far from clear if Beijing will allow the process to go on. Beijing still forcibly repatriates North Korean refugees they consider “economic migrants” — but not not humanitarian cases. 

With sanctions beginning to bite, more and more North Korean restaurants are expected to close down, especially in cities like Dandong, Shenyang, and Yanji close to the border. With South Korean tourists now deliberately skipping Pyongyang’s restaurants, some waitresses in Myanmar have been seen peddling rice balls on the streets of Yangon.

It’s an alarming if pathetic sight — a pair of young Korean women dressed in colorful traditional dress peddling rice balls beneath a parasol on the streets of Yangon. It’s emblematic of the decay besetting Pyongyang. In Seoul, the government is so preoccupied with elections that it appears unable to focus on what contingency plans it needs to address these developments. 

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review.

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