Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Korean people defect, revealed to the FT that the recent strict restrictions on travel within China had affected defectors as they live in China for years before then escaping to South Korea through south-east Asia. In three months to the end of June, only 12 North Koreans entered South Korea, compared with 320 in the same period last year. The steep decline comes after North Korea abruptly shut down most of its land, sea and air borders in January.
Pyongyang put the protocols into practice rapidly in order to avoid contagion in light of the escalating crisis in Wuhan, China, at the time.
“The biggest reason behind the decline is that the national borders of these countries were closed after the outbreak of the coronavirus and cross-border movement became difficult,” said Yoh Sang-key, a spokesman for Seoul’s unification ministry, which has released the figures on defections since 2003.
“A more professional analysis is needed, but for now the decline in the number of incoming defectors appears to be affected by the shutdown of borders in neighbouring countries after the coronavirus outbreak emerged, which made it difficult for people to travel,” he told a regular briefing.
“The primary [factor] is the near-impossibility of North Korean refugees leaving from China,” he said.
But while the two-year timeline in which no defectors have returned to North Korea coincides with a period of relative détente between the two Koreas, one expert warned against reading too much into the data.
“Some of it could, of course, be cases that the ROKG [Republic of Korea Government] doesn’t have data on,” said LiNK’s Sokeel Park.
“These are also small numbers so we need to be careful.”
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“With the increased risk, the cost increases too.”
Defectors who are intercepted trying to escape face penalties including prison sentences, torture or even execution.
Those who make it to China and are found are deported to North Korea, where they face the same punishment.
North Korea and China have face criticism by international experts over their stricter security guidelines since 2012, after Kim Jong Un took power in North Korea and Xi Jinping became China’s president.
The change in leadership resulted in a significant decline in successful defections.