A growing number of highly placed North Koreans are defecting to South Korea. One North Korean, who says he was a Russian language interpreter in the North’s military, entered Russia illegally and applied for asylum through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Identified as Choi, the 41-year old said he wants "to bring about changes to the North Korean regime, which makes its people suffer."
The manager of the Nepalese branch of the Okryugwan chain of North Korean restaurants escaped to India last month. In June last year, the first secretary of the Youth League in North Korea's Ryanggang Province defected, as did the representative of an overseas North Korean mission and the head of a trading company.
They were mostly in charge of earning dollars for the North and come from privileged backgrounds. Pyongyang thoroughly vets candidates for foreign posts to ensure their loyalty to the Workers Party and checks if any of their family are involved in subversive activities. Candidates are then required to leave their family behind when being sent to work overseas. But despite these safeguards, the North has been unable to stem the defections.
As of the end of October of this year, the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea surpassed the 20,000 mark. But the employment rate among defectors aged 15 or more stands at a mere 39.9 percent and they make on average only W1.26 million (US$1=W1,155) a month, and 54.4 percent rely on welfare to make ends meet. Even if they used to be in high-level positions back in the North, they have to start from scratch in the South.
The more of the elite turn their backs on Kim Jong-il, the faster the regime will collapse. Elite East German officials who defected to West Germany during the Cold War not only received support payments to adjust to life in the West, but also benefited from pension and other social benefits. The West German approach of dealing with elite East German officials came from a realization of the symbolic and political significance of luring them to the West.
At present, South Korea pays North Korean defectors a one-time lump sum to settle in the South as well as a financial reward commensurate with the quality of information they provide. But that is all and then they have to manage on their own. However, helping them adjust successfully in South Korea can be one of the best tools to pressure the communist country to change. The government needs to take another look at how it treats North Korean defectors.