While North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un pops bottles of champagne, over-doses on Emmental cheese, and hosts Master Chef-style cooking competitions, two-thirds of his country’s 27 million people starve on food rations. Now, North Korea's restaurant workers, usually chosen to work abroad due to their loyalty and trustworthiness, are defecting in droves.
Last month, 13 employees at the state-owned Pyongyang restaurant in Ningbo, China ran away to South Korea, and now Seoul's Unification Ministry has confirmed that three more female workers have “broken away” this week.
The escape in April—which included one male manager and 12 female employees—marked the largest defection since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. The whereabouts and motives of the restaurant workers has largely turned into a proxy war between North and South Korea, with Pyongyang accusing Seoul of manipulating and abducting its citizens. South Korea has denied the accusations, however, claiming the employees acted of their own volition.
"It is a fact that North Koreans have recently fled an overseas restaurant," an anonymous ministry official told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. "But we cannot confirm anything about their current situation." It’s been speculated that the workers were stationed in Xian and may be heading for Thailand.
According to Yonhap News Agency, North Korea operates roughly 130 restaurants in 12 countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, and China, where the most recent defectors were located. Though the restaurants have reportedly been struggling due to international sanctions, South Korea believes the businesses pull in close to $10 million annually.
According to the Washington Post, the restaurants serve North Korean fare like cold noodles and kimchi, but less enticing dishes containing dog meat are also on the menu. Female servers perform musical numbers and diners are often drawn to the establishments for their kitsch, as well as the chance to steal a rare glimpse at life inside the Hermit Kingdom.
"The restaurants are used to earn additional money for the government in Pyongyang—at the same time as they were suspected of laundering proceeds from North Korea's more unsavory commercial activities," Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who covers North Korea, told Slate in 2010. "Restaurants and other cash-intensive enterprises are commonly used as conduits for wads of bills, which banks otherwise would not accept as deposits."