Number of North Korean defectors triples in 2023, Seoul says

Agence France-Presse
Number of North Korean defectors triples in 2023, Seoul says
In this picture taken near the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, a North Korean flag flutters in the wind at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea on October 4, 2022. North Korea fired a mid-range ballistic missile on October 4, which flew over Japan, Seoul and Tokyo said, a significant escalation as Pyongyang ramps up its record-breaking weapons-testing blitz.
AFP / Anthony Wallace

SEOUL, South Korea — The number of North Korean defectors making it to the South tripled last year to 196 after a run of pandemic-linked lows, Seoul said Thursday, with more elite diplomats and students seeking to escape.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the peninsula was divided by war in the 1950s, with most going overland to neighbouring China first, then entering a third country such as Thailand before finally making it to the South.

The number of successful escapes dropped significantly from 2020 after the North sealed its borders -- purportedly with shoot-on-sight orders along the land frontier with China -- to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

In 2021 only 63 people made it to the South, a more than 90 percent decrease from 2019, when 1,047 defectors arrived. Just 67 people arrived in 2022.

Last year, 196 defectors made it to South Korea, the country's Unification Ministry said in a statement, a figure that remains well below the pre-pandemic average.

Women accounted for more than 80 percent of people who escaped the repressive nuclear-armed regime last year, and most defectors travelled via a third country, the ministry said.

There was also an upward trend in the defections of North Korean elites such as diplomats and students studying abroad, according to the ministry.

"We have confirmed last year's defections by the elite class were the highest in recent years," it said.

Around 10 people from North Korea's elite class fled to the South last year, the most since 2017, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Defecting by sea directly to the South is extremely rare and seen as far more dangerous than land routes, with only a handful of people making it across the de facto maritime border, the Northern Limit line.

In 2023, 13 defectors fled to the South by sea, the Unification Ministry said, noting it was indicative of "worsening situations in North Korea".

All escapees who crossed the maritime border cited food shortages as driving their decision to flee, it said.

Pyongyang uses harsh words such as "human scum" when describing their citizens who have escaped.

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