The Koreas

Number of Elite North Korean Defectors on the Rise

What changing patterns of defections tell us about life under the Kim Jong-un regime.

Number of Elite North Korean Defectors on the Rise
Credit: North Korea soldier image via Astrelok /

A number of North Korea experts have recently highlighted the significance of changing trends in defections from the North. North Koreans have continuously fled to South Korea even after the 1953 ceasefire and installation of the Demilitarized Zone, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the number reached a three-digit figure. The figure climbed steadily, reaching four digits in 2002. Between 2006 and 2011, approximately 2,500 North Koreans entered the South per year on average, with a record high of 2,914 in 2007. The number began plummeting at the end of 2011 when Kim Jong-un took the throne, and stayed at about 1,400 from 2012 to 2015. In 2016, the figure started bouncing back and is at 815 as of the end of June, a 15.6 percent increase from the first half of last year.

The diminishing number of defectors compared to the peak in 2007, however, is absolutely no indication that livelihoods in the North have improved. Instead, the drop is due to Pyongyang carrying out stricter policing and harsher punishment, as it saw defections as a threat to the communist regime. Since 2012, the North has installed additional barbed-wire fences along a stretch of the Tumen River, strengthened border security, and imposed tougher punishment on those arrested while attempting to flee. When captured, defectors leaving for economic reasons are sent to labor training corps or reeducation camps, but those with subversive purposes are thrown into political prison camps. Article 62 of the North Korea Criminal Code states that anyone who defects in betrayal of the country can be sentenced to death.

The number of North Korean defectors, despite such atrocities, has risen in 2016 primarily for the following two reasons. First, the North is once again facing economic difficulties. Its food production, which showed signs of modest improvement after 2010, took a nosedive in 2015. To add insult to injury, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2270 in the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January, which imposed new sanctions on the isolated regime. As a result, Pyongyang has suffered falls in exports, and its enterprises earning hard currency have been squeezed. In addition, the price of mineral resources started declining in 2013; thus, there was a huge drop in world market prices for the North’s primary export items such as anthracite coal and iron ore. Now that Beijing, Pyongyang’s primary export destination, has joined the UN sanctions against the North, the regime’s exports to China have also plunged. Moreover, Pyongyang must have also felt the bite from Seoul’s unilateral sanctions. The South completely shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in February, which had employed 50,000 North Korean workers, in response to the January nuclear test and recommended its citizens living overseas not dine at North Korea-owned restaurants, thereby draining primary customers out of these operations.

Second, a growing number of North Koreans fleeing to the South are elites. Recently, Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who was based in Britain, has defected to South Korea. The vast majority of North Korean defectors so far have left the oppressive regime to escape persistent hunger; most have been female and come from Hamgyong Province, located near the border. However, the profile of defectors began diversifying in 2010, ranging broadly from diplomats and soldiers to artists and academics. This new breed of defectors has fled to the South not only to meet their basic needs but to fulfill other political and social desires.

It is interesting to note that the regime’s elites working abroad are increasingly trying to escape. For example, 13 employees at a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, in China’s Zhejiang province, defected to the South in April, followed by three staffers at a state-run restaurant in Shanxi province in May. In June, eight female staffers working in Liaoning province escaped to Seoul, and two restaurant employees in Malta did the same in July. Most recently, an 18-year-old North Korean math wizard participating in the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology sought refuge at the South Korean Consulate General. Also, it has been reported that some of the General Political Bureau of the People’s Army’s high-ranking officials and diplomats staying overseas sought asylum in a third country.

These defectors are all part of the privileged class in the North as only those classified as being of “good” songbun (family background) are allowed to become high-ranking officials or be sent abroad to work. Now a variety of North Korean defectors — including former government and military officials who escaped from cruel and inhumane punishment, professional singers who fled to gain freedom to sing, and parents who defected to give their children a chance for a better future — are making their lives in their second fatherland, South Korea.

The changing trend in defections clearly reveals the limits of the North Korean system and the dangerous accumulation of the paradoxes built into it. In addition, the latest defections pose a new challenge to South Korea and the international community. The new stream of elite defections may undermine the very foundations of the Kim regime, thereby compelling Pyongyang to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula for the purpose of forging internal unity while also accelerating improvements in its nuclear capability. This is why the international community and South Korea should remain vigilant at all times, and both should come up with proper responses based on precise analyses of the communist regime’s resilience.

Kim Tae-woo is Professor at Konyang University and former President of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU).