North Korean defector numbers to South lowest since 2001

Seoul (AFP) –


The number of North Koreans defecting to the South dropped to its lowest in nearly two decades last year, Seoul said Monday, continuing a downward trend as Pyongyang tightens controls on movement.

Some 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the democratic South last year, down from 1,137 in 2018, according to data released by the unification ministry.

It was the lowest figure since 2001.

The number relates specifically to those arriving in the South, rather than those leaving the North.

The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North, which suffers chronic food shortages and is subject to UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, go first to China.

They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.

By the end of December, more than 33,500 North Korean defectors had entered the South since 1948, when the two Koreas separated.

Arrivals peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but have mostly declined since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011.

"We've seen more wire fences go up along the border and it is harder for escapees to bribe the guards as authorities are willing to offer bigger rewards," said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul.

Women account for the lion's share of defectors, making up around 81 percent of last year's arrivals.

It is easier for women to leave the North as men all have assigned jobs, making any absence easier to spot for the authorities.

Once defectors they arrive in the South, some struggle to adjust to their new life.

Last year, a 42-year-old woman and her six-year-old son were found dead in their home -- along with an empty fridge and unpaid bills -- two months after their deaths.

The South's Yonhap News Agency reported Monday that a 62-year-old man from the North who arrived in 2008 had been found dead on a mountain in Daegu, leaving behind a note saying: "It is too hard to live."