Last year, the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea exceeded 1400, marking the first annual increase since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification told DailyNK that according to the Ministry’s data, the number of defectors who entered South Korea in 2016 was 1417, a rise of 11% compared to 2015.
The number of North Korean defectors had continuously increased until 2009 to reach 2914, and since then maintained a steady decrease to 2706 in 2011, and 1502 in 2012, due to strengthened border control and greater punishments for defection by the North Korean authorities. The number of defections dropped to 1514 in 2013, 1397 in 2014, and 1276 in 2015, until rising for the first time last year. In November 2016, the total number of defectors to have settled in South Korea exceeded 30,000, a number which has since risen to 30,208.
The increasing number of defections seems to have resulted from Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of fearpolitik combined with international sanctions, which have led to negative public sentiment and more defection attempts by ranking officials both inside North Korea and abroad.
In April last year, 13 North Korean workers (12 female employees and one male manager) working at the Ryukyung restaurant in Ningbo, a city in China’s Zhejiang Province, collectively defected. This was followed by a similar case in August last year, when 10 North Korean workers dispatched to Russia’s Saint Petersburg fled their worksite. There has also been a series of defections by ranking officials, including Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London and a colonel of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance. Other high-profile cases including a cadre heading a staffing, employment, and recruitment agency who was dispatched to Russia and a European-based North Korean official with Office 39, have been reported by various South Korean media outlets citing unidentified sources, although not all of these have been verified by the Unification Ministry.
The defections of the elite class drew significant attention, as it reflects the stability of the North Korean system. The Ministry of Unification spokesperson commented, “Defections by North Korean elites have increased. Accordingly, the number of defectors who need to receive special protection by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) has also increased. They are allowed to immediately settle down in South Korea without going through the resettlement education program at Hanawon, the government resettlement center for defectors.”
The NIS reported that the defected high-ranking officials have stated their motives for defection include disillusionment with the Kim Jong Un regime, longing for South Korean society and its liberal democratic system, and excessive pressure for loyalty contributions by the regime. In regards to the pressure for contributions, many have reportedly stated to the NIS that they escaped despite the personal peril in order to avoid “unreasonable charges” and possible execution, as in the case of Jang Song Thaek, if they fail to complete tasks ordered by the authorities.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Unification has not disclosed the number of defectors last year who entered South Korea directly without passing through a third country.