Reuters International

A North Korean flag is seen on the top of its embassy in Beijing, China, February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - Thirteen North Koreans who worked at a restaurant run by the isolated state in a third country are seeking political asylum in South Korea, the South said on Friday, describing the defections as unprecedented.

The workers, 12 women and a man who managed the restaurant, arrived on Thursday in the South, which admitted them on humanitarian grounds, said Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea issues.

"There was a shared wish to go to South Korea and nobody was resistant to that," Jeong quoted a person in the group as telling authorities.

He said the workers likely faced increased pressure from Pyongyang to send cash earned from the restaurant back home as other income sources are crimped by tough U.N. sanctions.

South Korea has discouraged its citizens from eating at North Korean restaurants abroad after it imposed new sanctions against Pyongyang in March following a U.N. Security Council resolution triggered by the North's fourth nuclear test. Media reports have said business has suffered.

The restaurants, in countries such as China and Cambodia, generate an estimated $10 million in income annually which is channelled to the North, according to the South's Unification Ministry.

The North Korean restaurant workers often perform musical routines in addition to serving food, and are chosen in part for their perceived loyalty to the regime.

Jeong said it was unprecedented that such a group had defected from the same North Korean restaurant abroad.

It is also unusual for South Korea to make a formal announcement about defections by North Koreans, or to even comment on them.

Jeong said the government decided to go public about the arrivals because of the "unusual" nature of the defections.

About 29,000 people had fled North Korea and arrived in the South as of March, including 1,276 last year, with numbers declining since a 2009 peak.

North Korean defectors to South Korea typically travel through China to a third country before reaching the South. The North punishes those who are caught trying to defect and their families.

Jeong declined to identify the country where the restaurant was located, or which country the group was in before arriving in South Korea, citing potential impact on diplomatic ties.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe)

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