Before defecting, N Korean waitresses shopped for backpacks

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 1:44 PM

"They seemed happy."Another shop worker, surnamed Gong, confirmed the story. Four waitresses from the Ryugyong Korean Restaurant visited the nearby store on April five and bought three backpacks, each for the listed one hundred ninety-nine yuan (about $31), even though they were frequently known to bargain, the workers said.

Two days before they sought asylum in S Korea, the N Korean waitresses in the Chinese coastal city of Ningbo shopped for backpacks at a nearby store and paid relatively expensive full prices.

"I asked them 'Are you going on a trip?', and they said yes," said one of the workers at the shop, who declined to give his name. "They seemed happy."

Another shop worker, surnamed Gong, confirmed the story.

Four waitresses from the Ryugyong Korean Restaurant visited the nearby store on April five and bought three backpacks, each for the listed one hundred ninety-nine yuan (about $31), even though they were frequently known to bargain, the workers said.

Two days later, twelve of the restaurant'south waitresses and one manager arrived in Seoul, the S Korean capital, in the biggest mass defection case involving N Koreans in several years.

How they planned and executed their ride remains a mystery.

S Korea has only said it's admitted thirteen defectors, N Korean restaurant workers who arrived on April seven, on humanitarian grounds. The N has called it a "hideous" abduction of its workers by the South.

China has said a grouping of thirteen N Koreans used authorized passports to leave the country normally on April six, but didn't declare where they went.

In Ningbo, shopkeepers nearby considered the N Korean restaurant and its beautiful but secretive waitresses a curiosity.

The restaurant, presently closed, sits on a newly developed pedestrian Str for tourists that opened for business in late Sept last year.

Across the lane at a cosmetics shop, Jiang Jiang recalled the noisy, patriotic N Korean music sung by the waitresses, a routine deployed at many of the around one hundred thirty N Korean restaurants around the world. Most remit revenues back to Pyongyang.

"Not my style," she said. Emotional her computer cursor between April five and six on a calendar, she added: "This is about when I stopped hearing the music. It was really loud music." 

Some shopkeepers nearby said the restaurant appeared to have been closed for renovations several months ago, but stories varied. Business didn't show up to be great.

An employee of the company that manages the vintage-looking grey brick and wood buildings that line the pedestrian street, including the Ryugyong, said the workers were very secretive, and generally only seen exterior when they were coming to and from work.

"They were below military-like management, and not free to go anywhere," she said. Shopkeepers said sometimes they'd shop for tiny items love hair bands.

Typically, N Koreans working overseas are chosen for their loyalty but are subject to many restrictions. They generally live together and are guarded by security officials.

Xue Bin, one of the Chinese businessmen behind the restaurant, said he pulled out of the venture after a disagreement with a partner about six months ago.

Corporate records indicate that Xue is the valid representative of the venture, which is wholly owned by a man named Wang Qianqian. Wang declined to comment when reached by phone.

Xue confirmed that all the workers were imported from N Korea via Korean businessmen. Their salaries were paid directly to the workers in half-yearly increments. The N Koreans lived in a dormitory and were provided food, he said.

"We provided excellent conditions," he said by telephone from Beijing. "They'd sufficient food. They'd sufficient free time."

Xue declined to declare what the business disagreement had been about. He also said he'd number idea how the staff had defected.

"Maybe they paid someone. I don't know," he said.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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