N.Korean Defections on the Rise Again

  • By Lee Yong-soo

    August 03, 2016 12:24

    The number of North Korean defectors arriving here is rising again after a four-year decrease since leader Kim Jong-un took power and tightened controls.

    From January thorough July this year some 815 North Koreans fled their country and arrived in the South, up around 15 percent from the same period last year, the Unification Ministry said Tuesday.

    This suggests that international sanctions and the resulting economic straits in the repressive North are driving many away. More defectors now come from the elite, which for long thrived while ordinary North Koreans starved.

    ◆ Defying the Odds

    From 2006 to 2011, some 2,000-plus people fled the North every year, but when Kim took power in 2012 numbers dropped to about 1,500.

    Last year the number was down to 1,276. The regime boosted border patrols, forcibly relocated the families of defectors, and meted out tougher punishment for those who aided and abetted defections.

    At the same time, the regime hatched plots to get defectors who had settled in South Korea to return, though few obliged. In some cases the regime took relatives hostage.

    The regime paraded returning defectors before the media, tremulously reading out prepared statements, before they too were sent to prison camps or remote areas, according to an official here.

    ◆ Disaffected Elite

    A government official here attributed the increase in the number of defectors this year to growing disaffection with Kim's rule.

    "More people are fleeing because the economy is getting worse in the wake of the international sanctions and because there's no sign of an end to the regime's reign of terror," the official said.

    Overseas, meanwhile, workers tasked with earning hard currency for their rulers are being squeezed ever harder and more frequently reach breaking point.

    Twelve workers and a manager defected en masse from a North Korean restaurant in China's Ningbo in April, and in June three staff from a North Korean restaurant in China's Shaanxi Province fled to South Korea.

    Reports said that eight North Korean women working at a plant in Donggang in China also fled. Most of them were from Pyongyang and children of senior party officials or well-off families, for whom even menial work abroad was a privilege.

    In early 2012, right after he took power, Kim ordered officials to send as many workers as possible overseas to earn hard currency. Sources claimed he said he did not care if one or two defected so long as they earned him hard cash.

    The number of North Korean workers in about 40 countries jumped from about 30,000 to 50,000-60,000 in just two to three years. Reports told of normally cowed North Korean construction workers in the Persian Gulf rising up against their minders after being squeezed too hard.

    "Money-related incidents of various kinds tend to occur frequently in the face of multifaceted international sanctions," the government official added. "There are probably going to be more defections among North Koreans working overseas."

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