Defections from N.Korea Fall Below 100 a Month

  • By Kim Myong-song

    November 16, 2015 11:54

    For the first time in 12 years fewer than 100 North Koreans are defecting to South Korea every month.

    North Korea watchers point to tougher crackdowns along the border with China since Kim Jong-un took power but also to rising living standards thanks to burgeoning open-air markets in the socialist state.

    The Unification Ministry says 978 North Korean defectors were debriefed by South Korean intelligence in the first 10 months this year or an average of 98 a month.

    Monthly defector numbers first rose above 100 in 2003, when they hit 107. A Unification Ministry official said the total this year is expected to remain below 1,200.

    Last year's figure was 1,400, and the highest was 2,914 in 2009.

    Lee Soo-seok of the Institute for National Security Strategy said, "The spread of open-air markets has reduced the number of North Koreans who live on the edge of starvation, and tightened security along the Chinese border has made it more difficult to defect."

    As of the end of October, 28,497 North Korean defectors had settled in South Korea. Mass defections occurred during the famine from 1995 to 1998, which was largely the fault of then leader Kim Jong-il's addle-brained military-first doctrine.

    Pouring every cent into nuclear and other arms development, the regime triggered an acute food shortage that caused an estimated 2 million North Koreans to starve to death during the period.

    North Koreans work at a farm in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province near the border with China.

    But defections kept rising after the disaster, reaching 2,000 in 2006 and nearly 3,000 in 2009. But since 2012 numbers have almost halved.

    When Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 the military-first doctrine died with him, and control of border guards shifted from the increasingly corrupt military to the State Security Department.

    A defector who was a chief border guard in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province until late 2013, said, "Since Kim Jong-un took power, border guards have been punished for taking bribes from defectors even if it only came to light after they’d already left the job. They became terrified and bribes no longer worked."

    But border guards who capture defectors are rewarded with promotion, Workers Party membership and recommendations to prestigious universities. The regime also installed CCTV on popular defection routes and fortified the border with barbed wire.

    In some cases North Korean officers have even pursued their prey into Chinese territory.

    That has not cut off all escape routes, but fees for traffickers have doubled from five years ago as the risks rise.

    A source said traffickers used to charge W4-5 million to cross the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China, but now they take nearly W10 million. (US$1=W1,167) In some areas along the Tumen River the cost is W15-17 million.

    China has also boosted crackdowns on North Korean defectors because it is afraid of a mass exodus, and they are likely to increase now relations between the allies are improving.

    But better living condition also undoubtedly played a part. One researcher at a state-run think tank here said since there are now some 400 markets in the North, and they have improved the lives of many who might earlier have risked their lives to flee destitution.

    But the same development has prompted more members of the elite to defect, often to escape the side effects of nascent capitalism.

    "Capitalism has spawned corruption and business conflicts," said Cho Dong-ho at Ewha Womans University. "It seems a lot of fat cats defect when they lose a battle over business interests or face corruption charges."

    National Intelligence Service chief Lee Byung-ho last month said 46 North Korean diplomats defected to South Korea over the last three years. Most had had escape plans for years in case their business turned sour, and some managed to spirit out billions of won to set themselves up in style here with a pad in swish Gangnam and imported car.

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