The number of North Korean defectors in South Korea has topped 20,000. A Unification Ministry official on Monday said their number crossed 20,000 last Thursday, when an airplane from Thailand carrying about 50 new defectors arrived in the country. In 1999 there were 1,000 defectors, and in 2007 10,000.
The official said it took 59 years since defectors were first recognized in 1948 for their number to reach 10,000 but a mere three years to double.
The annual number of defectors arriving in the South was fewer than 100 until 1998. But it topped 500 in 2001, 1,000 in 2002, and 2,000 in 2006. Last year 2,927 arrived, an all-time high, though this year the trend slowed to 1,979 as of Oct. 10.
According to ministry data, the largest group or 77 percent hailed from North and South Hamgyong provinces. They are followed by those from regions bordering on China such as Pyongan, Jagang and Ryanggang provinces.
Asked why so many defectors are from Hamgyong, another ministry official said, "Compared to the Apnok (or Yalu) River in Pyongan, the Duman (or Tumen) River in Hamgyong is narrow and shallow, which makes it easier to cross."
By gender, female defectors account for 68 percent. In the past, male defectors outnumbered females, but the tables were turned in 2002.
Those in their 30s when they came to the South made up the largest portion at 33 percent, followed by those in their 20s (27 percent), 40s (15 percent), and teens (12 percent).
Meanwhile, defectors' standard of living here remains lower than that of South Koreans. According to the ministry, defectors earn on average W1.27 million (US$1=W1,133) per month. Some 31.5 percent have unskilled jobs and 23.2 percent install equipment or operate machinery.
Their economic participation rate stands at a mere 48.6 percent and employment rate at only 41.9 percent -- 70 to 80 percent of those of South Koreans.