Just 12 North Korean defectors reached the South from July to September
[2021-10-22 NK NEWS]
The number of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea stayed near record lows in the third quarter this year, according to data from Seoul’s unification ministry, with only 12 defectors arriving from July to September.
The figure is higher than the two defectors that the unification ministry originally said arrived in the second quarter, the fewest ever. Yet the total remains far below pre-pandemic levels of more than 1,000 refugee arrivals per year.
“With the prolonged pandemic environment, the continued low numbers of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea is discouraging, but not unexpected,” Chad Miller, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), told NK News.
North Korea’s strict COVID-19 measures limiting cross-border movement of people and goods appear to be contributing to the dramatic decrease in refugees. The number of defectors arriving annually in South Korea has been on the decline since Kim Jong Un rose to power in 2011 but cratered after the pandemic again, dropping from 1,047 in 2019 to 229 in 2020.
So far this year, only 48 defectors have reached South Korea — 19 women and 29 men.
“The North Korean border crackdown is certainly a primary cause, but we can’t discount the heightened security in other countries that defectors usually travel through on their way to South Korea, including not only China, but Southeast Asian countries as well,” Miller said.
North Korea’s COVID-19 restrictions have left would-be defectors in a difficult position in the country, as Pyongyang has cut off most trade and dealt with a “food crisis” this year.
The decline in defectors has also interrupted a key source of information about what’s happening in the country. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), for example, conducts interviews with defectors when they arrive in the country in part to learn about what’s happening on the ground.
“With such low numbers, even the U.N. is not currently meeting with newly arrived defectors,’ Miller noted.
It remains unclear whether defector numbers will recover anytime soon. North Korea’s foreign ministry said last year that the country would only reopen once the pandemic ends, but the country has yet to begin vaccinating its citizens against the coronavirus.
“Continuing to speak out on behalf of these defectors on the international stage, ensuring that relevant countries adhere to the international conventions they have signed is one way we can continue to support North Korean defectors trying to reach South Korea,” Miller told NK News.