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(3rd LD) Malta effectively deports N. Koreans, 3 defected to S. Korea: sources

2016/07/28 17:46

(ATTN: UPDATES with foreign ministry spokesman comments in para 7-8, 10)

VALLETTA/SEOUL, July 28 (Yonhap) -- Three North Koreans who worked in the European Union country of Malta but were forced out defected to South Korea last summer, sources familiar with the matter said Thursday.

Two North Korean restaurant workers disappeared last summer and one North Korean construction worker went missing in the first half of this year. They are presumed to have defected to the South, according to local residents of the island nation and the intelligence community.

The defection, if true, may indicate that a growing number of North Koreans working in restaurants and companies set up by the communist country to earn hard currency abroad are defecting and seeking new lives in the South. Thirteen North Koreans working at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo defected to the South en masse in April.

"I've heard one of the three defectors called his acquaintance (in Malta) to say he (or she) has entered an education program that helps him (or her) get accustomed to life in the South," a Malta resident who keeps in contact with the defector said.

In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016.

"We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here," a unification ministry official said asking not to be named.

Foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck declined to verify the defection, citing the customary government stance of neither confirming or denying questions raised on this issue. He said, however, countries are now taking steps to deal with North Koreans working overseas.

"I am aware that many countries are taking measures in relation to North Korean workers on their soil, like refusal to issue visas or renew them, probes into illegal stays and termination of contracts with North Korean laborers," Cho added.

This photo, taken on July 28, 2016, shows the downtown streets of Valetta, the capital city of Malta. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on July 28, 2016, shows the downtown streets of Valetta, the capital city of Malta. (Yonhap)

Meanwhile, the government of Malta has effectively deported some 20 North Korean workers amid international concern the regime in Pyongyang is abusing such workers to earn hard currency, government sources said.

Malta is the first European Union nation to take such a step, with some speculating that other nearby countries may soon follow suit.

Sources said that Malta has sent North Korean workers back home in the form of denying them an extension of their expiring visas. Under the measure, some 20 North Koreans who had worked at construction sites and garment factories have all returned to the North, according to the sources.

Local construction firm Rite Mix and garment firm Leisure Clothing confirmed to Yonhap News Agency that all North Korean workers have left.

An official of Rite Mix said that about 15 North Koreans had worked for the company, but all of them left en masse around late May. A Leisure Clothing official also said that the company is no longer hiring North Korean workers.

Malta is considered to have the closest relations with North Korea among EU members.

A source said that there have been continued media reports in Malta that North Korean workers have been suffering from long working hours and other abuses while getting only one third of their wages, with the rest sent to their government.

jschang@yna.co.kr; kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr

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