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[SEOUL] North Korea has again accused the South of "premeditated" abduction, following the latest defection of North Korean staff working at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in China.
The three North Koreans arrived in Seoul on Wednesday - the second such group defection this year after a dozen employees of another restaurant in China defected to the South in April.
"This incident, too, was the organised and premeditated abduction by gangsters of the puppet National Intelligence Service of South Korea," a spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross said in a statement.
The statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency late Thursday, claimed there were "sufficient materials" to prove a well-planned, concerted operation to abduct the workers from the restaurant in Weinan, in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi.
It said members of the South's spy agency had "lured" the three women who were taken south and spirited across the border with Laos and then into Thailand.
"The allurement and abduction clearly proves that the puppet forces of south Korea are the most hideous human rights abusers," the statement said, demanding the immediate return of the three women.
The South Korean government estimates that Pyongyang rakes in around US$10 million every year from about 130 restaurants it operates - with mostly North Korean staff - in 12 countries, including neighbouring China.
Tough United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea after its January nuclear test significantly curtailed the isolated state's ability to earn hard currency, making the restaurants an even more important source of income than before.
There have been reports of staff not being paid, with restaurants pressured into increasing their regular remittances to Pyongyang.
Since the first group defection of restaurant workers in April, North Korean state media has repeatedly run emotional interviews with the 12 women's relatives still in North Korea, urging their immediate return.
South Korea has rejected the North's "kidnapping" claims and refused Pyongyang's demands to allow the women's parents to travel to Seoul to meet their daughters.
Seoul has also ordered its embassies overseas to be extra vigilant to the threat of revenge kidnappings of South Korean citizens living abroad.
Nearly 30,000 North Koreans have fled poverty and repression at home to settle in the capitalist South.
But group defections are rare, especially by staff who work in the North Korea-themed restaurants overseas and who are handpicked from families considered "loyal" to the regime.