Argument

Dining and Dashing … From the Hermit Kingdom

Why did the 12 North Korean waitresses defect?

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The last place I wanted to eat after getting off a flight from Pyongyang was a North Korean restaurant in China. But it was my birthday, and my friends rallied for a celebration at the Beijing branch of one of North Korea’s most popular chain restaurants, Haedanghwa, an upscale establishment named after a rugged coastal flower native to the peninsula.

“North Korean restaurant” may seem like a misnomer to Westerners accustomed to thinking of the Hermit Kingdom as a land of starving masses bereft of food, not to mention haute cuisine. But laid before us on this cold January 2013 evening in Beijing was a feast: steamed crab splayed on a bed of greens, a platter of grilled beef, a plate of glistening sashimi. A widescreen television mounted on the wall offered the opportunity to sing karaoke. Two North Korean waitresses sashayed in and out of our private room in platform heels, gracefully but silently refilling our glasses of white wine and tumblers of Pyongyang soju.

In early April of this year, North Korea’s state-run overseas restaurants — and the enigmatic young women who work in them — came back into the news, as South Korean officials announced that 12 North Korean waitresses and their manager had defected to Seoul from the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. Photos showed the women clad in jeans and candy-colored sneakers, most likely the casual athletic gear they wore in transit in an effort to pass as South Korean. It was the largest group defection since Kim Jong-un came to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.

Seoul announced the defections on April 8, a day after their arrival, in an unusual break from its policy of keeping North Korean defections secret for several months or longer. Then, on April 11, Seoul revealed two unorthodox 2015 defections: a North Korean colonel in military intelligence and a North Korean diplomat, who fled his post from an unknown country in Africa with his family.

South Korea is now home to more than 29,000 North Koreans who have defected since the North-South border was sealed with the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953. Most leave North Korea illegally, paying brokers or bribing their way to the border and slipping across the river to China. They then make their way to a third country such as Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam, where, with the help of an underground network, they land in safe houses before being put on flights to Seoul. Once there, they go through a rigorous interrogation as well as training programs to help them adjust to the South Korean language and culture, before they are able to re-enter society. Most of the defectors come from impoverished cities — like Hyesan or Chongjin — near the Chinese-North Korean border.

Significantly, the recently announced defectors — the 13 restaurant workers from China, the diplomat, and the military officer — are presumably members of the North Korean elite. And the restaurant workers, unlike most other defectors, had valid passports and permission to leave North Korea.

Permission to work abroad is an honor and a lucrative opportunity for North Koreans. Many of the young North Korean elites I got to know while reporting from Pyongyang as an Associated Press correspondent from 2008 to 2013 had a friend, sibling, or relative working in China for two- or three-year assignments. Every month, I boarded a flight on the national airline, Air Koryo, from Pyongyang to Beijing that was filled with young women en route to work in restaurants in China and beyond. Smart, well-dressed, talented, and pretty, they were clearly members of Pyongyang’s upper crust, handpicked to represent North Korea abroad.

Not only did they have the trust of their party and government, but they had the opportunity — and pressure — to earn foreign currency to send back home. It has been decades since the North Korean state has been able to provide its people with enough food and goods to survive on state rations alone. Every North Korean I knew hustled to find a way to make the cash needed to supplement their meager rations of cornmeal or potatoes with meat, fruit, and vegetables — or clothes and luxuries such as makeup, cellphones, or the inline skates that were all the rage among the children of Pyongyang’s elite.

North Korea is believed to operate some 130 restaurants abroad, mostly in China but also in places such as Poland and Amsterdam, earning an estimated $10 million in hard currency annually for the regime. Until recently, many of their customers were curious South Korean tourists. In a 2009 trip to the temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I spotted a row of South Korean tour buses parked outside North Korean noodle restaurants.

Those young waitresses must have made an excruciating calculation in the days before their defection: Go back to the confines of life in a political and economically uncertain North Korea, or abandon their loved ones — the families of defectors are believed to be punished — for the chance to live like the increasingly prosperous South Koreans who frequented their restaurants.

Even while abroad, these young women would not have had total freedom. Under North Korea’s socialist system, the state allocates housing and provides medical care, and in return requires workers to hand over much of the cash earned abroad. I’ve watched at the airport countless times as a group leader gathered all the North Korean passports, effectively gaining control over their comings and goings. A “buddy” system — the women are not allowed to be out by themselves — ensures they keep one another in line: For them, North Korea’s strict laws extend beyond their country’s borders.

Still, life is different in China. I’ve seen fashionably dressed North Korean women walking arm in arm, chatting away, knockoff designer purses dangling from their wrists. Their lives may seem confined by Western or even Chinese standards but in China, they can break away from the state’s prying eyes and eat a meal, listen to foreign music, or even just shop for trinkets. Perhaps it’s just enough of a taste to lure them to leave, like so many others, in search of a different life.

People often ask me why more North Korean elites don’t defect when they have the opportunity, as Soviets, Cubans, and East Germans did in decades past. My stock answer: their friends and family. To leave is to wager that you may never see them again. But perhaps more elites will choose to leave as the calculation tips in favor of defection amid an uncertain political and economic climate at home, and as North Koreans become more confident in their ability to thrive outside their country’s system.

That night at Haedanghwa in Beijing, we were a mixed group: Belgian, Italian, British, Singaporean, South Korean, and me, Korean-American. While our non-Korean friends could forget for a moment that North Koreans were serving them, my South Korean friend and I were keenly aware that there was a political calculation on the waitresses’ part every time they spoke to us.

When my South Korean friend asked, with a distinct Seoul accent, for a glass of water, she got only a cool stare from the insouciant North Korean waitress. For both of them, conversation was dangerous, and forbidden by their governments.

But I knew the waitress wasn’t ignoring us. As ethnic Koreans from another country, we were as exotic and as intriguing to her as she was to us. The clothes we wore, the way we did our hair, the way we interacted so freely and familiarly with our foreign friends: She took all of it in with a quick, appraising glance each time she swept into the room to bring us another platter of food. We were a window onto another world, and perhaps one she was tempted to join.

Image Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Jean H. Lee is a former Associated Press bureau chief who opened the news agency’s office in Pyongyang in 2012. She is now a Seoul-based global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @newsjean.

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