By Alex Jensen
SEOUL (AA) - Another group of North Korean restaurant staff have escaped from China, according to a South Korean government official Tuesday.
“It is a fact that North Korean's have recently fled an overseas restaurant,” the official was quoted as saying by local news agency Yonhap, “but we cannot confirm anything about their current situation.”
Local media claimed a day earlier that up to three North Koreans were on their way to South Korea via Thailand after leaving their restaurant in Xian -- the capital city of Shaanxi Province in central China -- during the last fortnight despite conflicting reports on the details.
While tens of thousands of defectors from the North have resettled in the South since the late 1990s, last month saw a particularly notable escape by 13 supposedly loyal restaurant staff working in Ningbo in east China's Zhejiang province.
North Korea subsequently accused Seoul of kidnapping the dozen waitresses and their manager, who are currently at one of South Korea’s resettlement centers for defectors from the North -- the South has refused to cooperate with Pyongyang’s request for a meeting between the escapees and their families back home.
Defectors often wish to remain anonymous as North Korea’s authoritarian regime is notorious for its harsh punishment of perceived traitors, along with three generations of their relatives in accordance with an ancient local custom.
It is not yet clear whether the latest group of restaurant staff were inspired by last month’s case, which Seoul viewed as evidence of fresh sanctions rocking the North’s regime.
Pyongyang is thought to rely on around 50,000 of its citizens working overseas for hard cash -- but North Koreans are forbidden from traveling to the South without permission, and vice versa.
The North switched from making threats to proposing inter-Korean dialogue over the weekend -- Seoul, however, insists it will only enter talks if Pyongyang demonstrates a sincere willingness to give up its widely condemned nuclear weapon ambitions.
Even though South Korea is known to have welcomed nearly 30,000 North Korean defectors since the 1990s, an official stated that the group of 13 had been accepted on "humanitarian grounds."
He admitted that this was a notable case given the recent strengthening of sanctions against the North.
The South operates centers where North Korean arrivals receive basic support and education to prepare them for life in their new capitalist home, but they are also screened to ensure that they are not spies.