They had been working at one of the many restaurants North Korea operates abroad, mostly in Asia, where young waitresses in traditional attire serve traditional North Korean food and drinks, while providing musical entertainment. Shortly before the groups defection, the South Korean government had called on its citizens traveling abroad to avoid North Korean restaurants, saying the money they spent there went to funding North Koreas weapons programs. Seoul then claimed that the restaurant workers had defected because they were under pressure to send more money back to North Korea, even as business was slumping with fewer South Korean customers. The restaurants are a source of sorely needed foreign currency for the North Korean state, which is cut off from most kinds of international commerce by an increasingly tight set of economic sanctions. The United Nations has enacted multiple sets of sanctions meant to sever North Koreas links to international trade and finance networks as punishment for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The first half of this year saw the first increase in the number of defectionssince 2011, when Kim Jong Un took power, according to South Korean government data. Although more than 1,000 North Koreans arrive in the South every year and a total of more than 29,000 are registered here, defections by overseas diplomats and government officials are rare. The most high-profile case came in 1997 when Hwang Jang Yop, a close associate of founding leader Kim Il Sung, defected to the South. Despite being from North Koreas privileged elite, Thae wont be a treasure-trove of information for the South Korean intelligence agents who will interrogate him, said Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
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