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N. Korean Restaurant Workers Seek Asylum in South

FILE - A man walks past a branch of the North Korean-operated Haedanghwa restaurant in Beijing.
FILE - A man walks past a branch of the North Korean-operated Haedanghwa restaurant in Beijing.

Another group of North Korean defectors have fled a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China, seeking asylum in South Korea, Seoul's Unification Ministry announced Tuesday.

The exact number of defectors, details of where they worked and how they left China are not clear.

"It is true that workers of oversea North Korean restaurant have escaped," South Korea's Foreign Minister Cho June-hyuck said in a briefing. "But we cannot give you details on status of these workers. It is our government's position that we cannot give you details because of safety of North Korean defectors, diplomatic matter, and relation with neighboring countries."

Just last month 13 North Koreans, working for a North owned restaurant in China, escaped to South Korea. South Korean leaders say the workers came of their own free will, while the North claims they were essentially kidnapped by spies who tricked them into defecting.

Despite the similarities of these two groups, Cho maintained that the previous defection was an unusual occurrence.

"The difference between this defection and the previous defection is that the previous defection was very unusual as many defectors escaped in a group and [our government] revealed it considering the situation," he said.

"With regards to the defection this time, I would like to tell you that our government is dealing with [the defection] according to our custom of handling North Korean defectors."

North Korea runs approximately 130 restaurants overseas, most of which are in China, according to a report by the South's spy service released earlier this year. The National Intelligence Service indicates that North Korea has between 50,000 and 60,000 workers abroad, mostly to bring in foreign currency.

North Korea is notoriously harsh against would-be defectors, often subjecting those who are unsuccessful in escaping to severe punishment.

Additional reporting by VOA's Youmi Kim.