On June 2, three North Korean restaurant workers who fled from their jobs in China arrived in South Korea. In April, another 13 restaurant workers made a similar escape. The workers were part of a North Korean initiative to earn cash for the regime when aid from the Soviet Union dried up and a massive famine struck in the 1990s. The regime continues to send its citizens to work overseas and bring in revenue for the state. Most of the estimated 50,000 North Koreans working abroad are unskilled laborers, who primarily work in China and Russia under strict supervision. Restaurant staff, however, are typically upper class and politically connected—the kind of North Koreans who aren’t inclined to run away.
The defectors were able to evade capture by undercover North Korean police and Chinese officials. In fact, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that the first group of escapees used valid documents to cross the border from China into Thailand legally. This suggests that China may have let the defectors go in order to send a warning to North Korea about its increasingly erratic foreign policy decisions.
The Chinese–North Korean relationship, which Chinese leader Mao Zedong once described as being “as close as lips and teeth,” has begun to show signs of wear. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear adventurism has provoked Beijing’s ire. For example, Chinese representatives did not attend North Korea’s 7th Party Congress in May—an unprecedented snub. And Beijing’s participation in international sanctions has cost North Korea by cutting off shipments of aircraft and rocket fuel, banning weapons sales, slowing down coal imports, and restricting all revenues not related to humanitarian purposes. Now, by allowing some of the country’s most politically connected citizens to escape, China has sent North Korea a strong message of disapproval, one that Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes will reaffirm just how much North Korea needs China’s patronage. What remains to be seen, is just how
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