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No. of Defectors Drops Amid Heightened Crackdown

Posted August. 02, 2010 11:13,   


The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea is plummeting because of the North’s stronger surveillance against would-be escapees amid tense inter-Korean ties, the Unification Ministry in Seoul said Sunday.

The figure had steadily increased since the Stalinist country’s food shortages resulted in mass starvation beginning in the mid-1990s.

The ministry said the number of North Koreans who arrived in the South in this year’s first half was 1,237, or 42.3 percent of last year’s figure of 2,927. The number for the second half is expected to decline further because the number of defectors awaiting entry into South Korea has dropped.

More than six months is normally needed for defectors to enter the South after fleeing the North. So the number of North Koreans to enter the South this year will reach an estimated 2,000, or two thirds last year’s figure.

This is a big change given that the number of defectors to South Korea had grown 10-30 percent every year. Had this pace been maintained this year, the number would have exceeded 3,000.

The number of defectors reaching South Korea was marginal through 1993, but increased to 52 in 1994. It exceeded 100 in 1999, 1,000 in 2002, and 2,000 in 2006.

The drop is largely due to the North’s stepped-up crackdown on defectors. The Stalinist country set up layered surveillance networks in border areas early this year shortly after its major security agencies -- the People’s Security Ministry and the State Security Ministry -- issued their first joint statement declaring war on defectors in February.

The People’s Security Ministry is in charge of maintaining public order and the State Security Ministry handles intelligence gathering. Unlike in the past, the two organizations are working closely together with military forces dispatched to border areas to prevent defections.

The North is known to have significantly strengthened its crackdown after its disastrous currency revaluation in December last year.

The punishment for defectors deported from China has also gotten tougher. In the past, North Koreans who fled their country were subject to labor if they left to earn a living but now face more than three years in prison without exception. In worst cases, public execution is their fate.

The heightened crackdown on defectors has raised the price of crossing a river to escape. The cost used to be tens of thousands of North Korean won (tens of U.S. dollars) in the past, but has soared to millions of won (hundreds of dollars). Even this amount, however, does not guarantee safe passage out of the North.

North Koreans who escaped to South Korea used to send money to the North to help their families flee, but it has gotten more difficult not only to send money, but also to contact their families in the North.

All of this is related to strained inter-Korean relations. The powerless defectors are victims of the bilateral confrontation that began with the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008.