North Korea has more than 100 restaurants in about 25 countries, mostly in China and southeast Asia, but also in Russia and Dubai. The restaurants have become a major source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped Pyongyang regime. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

Thirteen North Koreans working at a state-run restaurant in an unidentified country defected to South Korea this week, the government in Seoul announced Friday.

A male manager and 12 female employees arrived in South Korea on Thursday, a spokesman for the South’s unification ministry said, but he declined to say which country they’d been in or how they escaped.

"It marked the first time that a group of North Koreans at the same restaurant has opted to come to South Korea at once," Jeong Joon-hee, the spokesman, told reporters Friday.

"The government has decided to reveal this case because it is rare that a group of North Koreans would defect to South Korea in this way,” he said, noting that it comes after broad international sanctions were imposed on North Korea after its nuclear test in January.

North Korean women perform and serve drinks in the Arirang restaurant in Yanji, northern China. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

The North Koreans defected because they had become disillusioned with their state after watching South Korean television shows and realizing how much better life was in the South, he said.

The move is remarkable because it suggests a high degree of coordination. The North Koreans would have had to confide in each other — a risky admission in a system where people are encouraged to snitch on one another.

Plus, working in a state restaurant abroad is considered a relatively plum job for a North Korean. The work requires language and often musical skills, and offers much better pay than workers could earn at home. As such, it is usually reserved for those considered very loyal to the regime.

North Korea has more than 100 restaurants in about 25 countries, mostly in China and southeast Asia, but also in Russia and Dubai. These restaurants are popular with South Korean tourists, offering them a chance to interact with their estranged compatriots.

The restaurants have become a major source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped Pyongyang regime, so much so that as part of the sanctions imposed after the January nuclear test, the South Korean government advised its citizens not to visit the restaurants abroad.

In the restaurants, multilingual and glamorous North Korean women serve drinks and food but also sing and play a variety of instruments, from electric guitars and drums to more traditional violins. They live in dorms under the watchful supervision of a minder from the state security services, and are allowed to go out only on specific days and only in groups — so they can keep an eye on one another.

There are 50,000 to 100,000 North Koreans working abroad earning foreign currency for the regime, from loggers in Siberia and seamstresses in China to construction workers in the Middle East and statue builders in Africa.