Following a similar group defection in April, the recent
escape of three North Korean employees from another restaurant overseas deals a
significant blow to Pyongyang.
The initial defection in April of 13 restaurant staff
occurred just ten days before the “nation’s largest celebration” – Kim Il
Sung’s birthday, and only a month before the 7th Party Congress in May. The
timing of the incident before these two auspicious occasions would have
undoubtedly resulted in its classification as a major “political incident” and
generated significant consternation for the North Korean authorities.
State officials were therefore acutely concerned about the
news spreading within the country (with state media not reporting on the
incident for some time). However, unable to keep a lid on the spreading rumors,
the regime resorted to allegations of “South Korean abduction” and began laying
out demands for the return of the workers.
In parallel, a vigorous public campaign against the “brutality committed in broad daylight that would anger both mankind and the
heavens,” was launched by using the seven restaurant workers that had decided
against joining the group defection and returned to their parents. However, in
the midst of these efforts, an additional three female restaurant employees
working at a different restaurant in China escaped on May 23 and have now
arrived in South Korea.
These highly unusual escapes by children of the North Korean
elite can be seen as an indicator of emerging weaknesses in the regime’s
control of its population. Although some 30,000 defectors have made the
perilous journey to the South and the North’s regime has nonetheless remained
intact, these two recent incidents share several uncommon features that
distinguish them from the majority of defections occurring via the Sino-North
The fact that 13 individuals from different families
succeeded in evading the regime’s surveillance apparatus and agreed to embark
on a perilous journey of over 5,000 km is in itself remarkable.
Also worth noting is that these children of the North Korean
elite were heavily screened and handpicked by state authorities, and that most
were citizens of Pyongyang (which refers to itself as the “heart of the
revolution”). It is challenging enough for ordinary families to reach an
agreement on defecting, signaling that these two independent group defections
reflect an immense disillusionment with serving under the regime. Adding
further salt to the wound is that the most recent escape involving the three
employees came after the North had already replaced all of its restaurant
managers and doubled the number of surveillance officers.
It remains to be seen how the regime will try to frame the
most recent defection. If an additional allegation of “abduction in broad
daylight” is declared, this may indirectly imply that China was either
unwilling or unable to prevent the second defection.
Speculation is warranted on the exact causes for why these
individuals made the extraordinarily difficult decision to defect at great risk
to both themselves and the parents and siblings they leave behind.
A number of North Korea observers had hopeful expectations
when the young Swiss-educated leader first came to power. However, such hopes
are becoming increasingly difficult to justify. It is an obligation of those in
the free world to ensure that the people of North Korea receive the support
they deserve in their understanding and pursuit of basic human rights.