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Number of North Korean defectors nearly triples in 2023, including ‘elite’ diplomats, South Korea says

The number of North Korean defectors entering South Korea nearly tripled in 2023 compared to the previous two years, authorities said Thursday – including a higher number of youth and members of the North Korean elite.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry recorded 196 defectors entering the country last year, it said in a briefing. More than half were in their 20s and 30s, and about 84% were women or girls, according to government data.

The total figure is just a fraction of pre-pandemic levels – 1,047 defectors arrived in 2019 – but it still marks a significant rise after a steep decline during the Covid-19 pandemic.

North Korea slammed its already tight borders shut in 2020, plunging the hermit nation into even greater isolation. Only 63 defectors entered South Korea in 2021, and 67 in 2022, according to government data.

The country began reopening somewhat in 2023, allowing citizens living abroad to return, and resuming international flights to certain countries including China and Russia. But the Unification Ministry said some North Koreans living overseas chose not to return – and instead fled to the South.

About 10 what it described as elite North Koreans were among those who defected last year, the highest number of this group since 2017, according to the ministry. They include “diplomats, other officials and students based overseas (who) were told to return last year as the pandemic situation entered a new phase,” a ministry official said.

“Many must have found it unacceptable after experiencing what (it) was like to live in the free world, knowing that the economic situation even worsened and internal controls strengthened in North Korea,” the official said.

The ministry said further details could not be given for safety reasons.

The most cited reason for defection in 2023 was dissent towards the ruling Kim regime, said South Korean officials – followed by lack of food and hunger in North Korea, which had previously been the most cited reason in recent years.

While millions of North Koreans live in impoverished conditions under the dynastic dictatorship of leader Kim Jong Un, the country’s wealthy elite, such as senior government officials and their families, reportedly have access to luxuries such as air conditioning, coffee and even smartphones – though the phones can only access heavily censored government-run intranet.

These residents mostly live in the capital Pyongyang, where a privileged few enjoy facilities like cinemas, department stores and indoor gyms.

A majority of those who entered South Korea last year had in fact left North Korea years ago, staying in third countries for a long time before making the journey to Seoul, said the ministry – adding that the diversification of defection routes signified the “very tough” situation within North Korea.

Many defectors leave through North Korea’s border into China, crossing the Yalu river that separates the two countries. After entering China, many cross the border illegally into Laos or Myanmar and head for the South Korean embassy in those countries or continue through to Thailand.

While the South Korean government is working to support the settlement of North Korean defectors entering the country, it is closely watching the possibility that the number of defectors could gradually increase if North Korea opens its border with China, said the ministry.

China, a close ally of Pyongyang, doesn’t consider North Korean defectors to be refugees, instead seeing them as illegal economic migrants. Under a border agreement with North Korea, it forcibly deports them.

Once back in North Korea, defectors face possible torture, sexual violence, hard labor, imprisonment in political or re-education camps, or even execution by the North Korean state, according to activists.

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