There appears to have been a shift in the profile of defectors fleeing North Korea since a botched currency reform late last year. Before the reform, most of the defectors were so poor that they did not care whether they would be killed if they were caught fleeing the North.
But since the currency reform, more middle-class North Koreans have been fleeing the North, a South Korean security official speculated.
A North Korean source on Tuesday said the currency reform alienated many people from the regime, and the spread of South Korean pop culture through videos and CDs clandestinely circulated in the North has also encouraged some middle and higher-class North Koreans to flee. In recent days, many people who lost their savings due to the currency reform have reportedly decided to flee.
A South Korean government official said, "Due to tight surveillance, those who want to flee must bribe brokers or North Korean border guards with a lot of money. The fact that these people have enough money to flee means that they are of the middle or higher class or have relatives in South Korea."
Reports say the number of upper-class North Korean defectors, like children of senior officials, has risen. Their arrival in South Korea has not been publicized here, and no statistics are available because they do not need to attend classes at Hanawon, a center for helping defectors adapt to a new life in the South, as ordinary defectors do.
Since early this year, the North has been bent on rounding up defectors, because it is apparently worried about the middle-class exodus. The North's two public security agencies, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, issued their first-ever joint statement in February calling the defectors "scumbags."
In March, a spokesman for the North's National Reconciliation Council issued a statement pointing out South Korean civic groups behind North Korean defectors and said they will be "primary targets of punishment." Since June, the regime has been sending agents to China and other countries to round up defectors.
Prof. Lee Jo-won of Chunggng University said, "It must be hard for the North Korean regime to see society's backbone break away at a time when the power succession is looming."