Defections increase in 2016 after steady decline

Monday 12th September, 2016

More North Korean refugees may be entering South Korea this year, after a steady decline since 2009.

A trend that saw a decrease in the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power may be changing this year, according to data from the Ministry of Unification. Factors that point towards the increase include decreased economic stability due to the reinforcement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, leading to further isolation of the state. It appears that the North Korean people are losing hope for any positive changes that may occur with the Kim Jong Un government.

Ministry of Unification confirmed on the 2nd of August that 815 North Korea refugees had entered South Korea so far this year, indicating a 15.6% increase since August 2015, which saw the entry of 705 refugees. It is expected that 2016 will see the first increase in defections since 2011, the year that Kim Jong Un first came to power. With special economic zones put under further restrictions, and attempts to escape met with even more severe punishment, the overall rate of defections had been slowing since 2009. Defections were highest between 2006 and 2009, by which 2009 saw an all-time peak of 2914 refugees. A dramatic decrease in 2012 saw the arrival of only 1502 refugees, and 1514 and 1397 in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Last year, the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea was a mediocre 1276.

Table from Ministry of Unification website showing number of North Korean refugees from 1998 to 2013.

Table from Ministry of Unification website showing number of North Korean refugees from 1998 to 2013.

Experts say that the new peak in defections are related to the political oppression and exploitation of citizens and a worsening economy. They added that various defections by high-profile officials and overseas labourers that occurred earlier this year also influence the number.

The penetration of foreign media through the use of phones, the Internet, and USBs also play a role.

A Ministry of Unification source said that “an increasing number of refugees make the decision to defect after engaging in business with China”. While there are different routes to escape from North Korea, “express refugees” (refugees that do not enter South Korea via a third country after China) are spending “comparatively shorter periods of time in China” before flying to South Korea.

The fact that defections on the elite level have increased points out the instability of Kim Jong Un’s regime. A Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) source said that “more North Korean refugees are describing their status in North Korea as ‘higher than middle class’.” In the past, defections amongst North Korean foreign labourers were few and far between, whereas this year, the number increased dramatically, partly due to the group defection of restaurant workers in China.

The Ministry of Unification predicts that the total number of North Korean refugees living in South Korea will pass the 30,000 mark by October 2016.


Reporting by Lee, Ki-cheol.

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