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Number of North Korean Defectors Declines

By Robert R. King

North Korean “defectors” or refugees are one of the most visible and tragic consequences of the North Korean government’s abysmal policies denying its own citizens internationally acknowledged human rights, including the right of freedom of movement.  The decision to leave North Korea is not easy, and it is one that has very difficult and dangerous consequences. Since the devastating famine in North Korea in the mid-1990s some 35,000 citizens in the North have left their homes and been able to resettle in South Korea.  An additional thousand or two have settled in Europe and some 225 have been admitted to the United States.

This number is only a small portion of the numbers who have gone illegally to China.  It also does not include probably thousands of others who have attempted to leave the North, but been captured in the attempt to leave and died in prison camps.  It does not include those who have been killed trying to leave by North Korean border guards, who have orders to shoot defectors if they are discovered trying to leave.  Chinese border guards and police authorities are complicit because they routinely return to the North any escaping refugees they capture.

Figures on refugees reaching South Korea, the United States and elsewhere in the last year are significantly lower than in the recent past.  From the mid-1990s until the end of 2019, some 33,523 defectors resettled in South Korea.  The number who resettled during 2019, however, is the smallest number in the last two decades, and represents a consistent decline from a peak of 2,914 in 2009 to only 1,047 last year.

The number of defectors admitted to the United States from 2006 to 2019 has been small—218 for a decade and a half.  But the number has declined, as one journalist described it, “to a trickle,” and no North Koreans were granted asylum in 2019 for the first time since the U.S. began accepting North Korean refugees.  This is down from the peak number of defectors coming to the United States in 2008, when 38 were admitted.  While immigration to the United States is down across the board because of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration, in the case of North Korea it appears to be more a question of the numbers leaving the North have significantly declined.

North Korean Policy to Discourage Defections

The decline in defectors leaving the North is largely due to North Korean policy, which has been more aggressive since Kim Jong-un became leader in late 2011.  Penalties for North Koreans caught trying to leave the country are harsh.  The UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights reported that defectors are deemed “to have committed ‘treason against the Fatherland by defection’ under the Criminal Code,” a crime that is punished by a minimum of five years of “reform through labor.” (COI Detailed findings, paragraphs 380-492.)  North Korean border guards have orders to shoot illegal border crossers, and credible media reports clearly indicate that the border guards understand and fulfill those orders.

Refugees leaving the North almost all cross the border with China because the North Korean border with South Korea (the De-Militarized Zone or DMZ) is so heavily guarded that access from the North is particularly difficult.  A North Korean soldier who attempted to cross the DMZ between North and South in November 2017 was shot five times by fellow soldiers as he fled to the South.

In addition to aggressively seeking to prevent border crossing, Kim Jong-un has also undertaken a media campaign designed to reduce the attractiveness of life in South Korea by highlighting “re-defections”—the return to the North of a tiny number of defectors who left and resettled in the South.  They are portrayed as having become disillusioned with the South and they were warmly welcomed home by the North.

A number of widely publicized media events involving “re-defectors” have sought to portray South Korean, American, and other human rights activists who helped refugees as “deceptive, dangerous, and exploitative people.”  The events have shown misguided defectors being welcomed when they return to the North, and the media has played up the theme that they were not punished for returning home.

One returnee, who appeared on North Korean national television gives a flavor of these programs:  “When I deplaned [in Pyongyang], quieting my thumping heart, I was stunned by the cordial reception.  I felt at that time how affectionate and great the motherland is to me.  The dear respected Kim Jong-un did not blame me, who did so many wrongs in the past, but brought me under his warm care.  He showed profound loving care for me.”

The media events have also sought to show that though the South may be more affluent, North Koreas living in the South are an underclass who suffer discrimination and have a lower quality of life than the South Korean elite.  Despite this official message, however, the number of defectors who have returned to the North is small.  Official South Korean figures in 2015 indicate that less than 3 percent of defectors whereabouts were unknown, but of that number most were living in other countries and only about a dozen were known to have returned to the North.  A member of the South Korean National Assembly reported that during the four-and-a-half years from 2015 to September 2019, only 12 defectors were identified attempting to return to the North.

Conditions in the South for Defectors  

Despite South Korean government programs to provide help, resettlement is difficult in a very different and very competitive economic, social and political system.  The suicide rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea is triple the rate for South Koreans.  Nam Young-hwa, president of the Women’s Association for the Future of the Korean Peninsula, suggested that this higher suicide rate was due to the traumatic sense of isolation and financial difficulties that defectors face.

Recent Ministry of Unification data reported that Northern refugees were approaching salary and employment figures of Koreans born in the South, but there is still a gap.  In 2019 refugees earned on average the equivalent of US$1,720 per month, while Southern-born Koreans earned $2,220, a difference of about $500.  North Koreans participating in the economy last year was 62.1 percent, only slightly lower than South Korean-born citizens at 63.3 percent.  Defectors satisfaction with their quality of life in the South in 2019 increased to 74.2 percent satisfied, which was 1.7 percent above the previous year.  These figures suggest that Northerners are not at the same level as Southerners, but differences between the two groups are not huge.

An event that provoked national soul-searching on the treatment of defectors in late July of 2019 was the discovery of the bodies of a 42 year-old North Korean defector and her six-year old son in their apartment in Seoul.  No food was found in the apartment, and the woman’s bank account balance was zero.  Authorities concluded that the woman and her son had apparently died of starvation.  The woman had been trafficked as a bride to a man in rural Northeast China.  She was aided in escaping from China and resettled in South Korea, and in 2018 she returned to China, where she divorced her husband, and then returned to Seoul with her son.  A spontaneous shrine sprang up in Seoul as people who did not know the woman or her son mourned her death.

The incident highlights the difficulties of the resettlement of refugees from the North in the South.  Many have done well, others have had problems adjusting, but most miss family and friends that they left behind when they migrated to the South.

The South Korean government has been sensitive and attentive to the difficulties and problems of the refugees.  A few months after the death of the defector and her son, the Ministry of Unification announced that it will provide additional support to over 550 North Korean defectors who were found to be facing harsh living conditions.  The Ministry also said it will continue to monitor refugee living conditions to determine if specific individuals need additional support in an effort order to prevent such tragedies.

Despite the problems of adjustment in South Korea, defectors who have returned to the North are few in number.  As we noted earlier, Kim Jong-un has sought to highlight refugees who have returned to the North with media events and much hoopla.  But most defectors have heard stories of the brutal treatment of North Koreans who have been apprehended attempting to leave the country or who have been returned by Chinese police authorities after an unsuccessful effort to leave.  Reports of police brutality are likely to be found more believable than those of the leader showing “loving care.” 

North-South Rapprochement and Impact on Seoul’s Attitude toward Defectors

In the past, conservative South Korean governments used the defector issue to tarnish the reputation of the North for its human rights abuses.  The government of President Moon Jae-in since 2016 has actively pursued a policy of engagement with the North, which has undermined Seoul’s previous support for defectors. Pyongyang clearly would like to see an end to Seoul’s support for Northern defectors.

Most of the politically active refugees in the South lean to the conservative side of the political spectrum.  Highlighting the conservative political leanings of defectors is the recent announcement by Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of the most senior DPRK officials to defect to the South.  Thae said he will seek election to the National Assembly in the 2020 elections as a representative of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.

The shift in policy by the Seoul government has been evident.  In May 2019 the South Korean government devoted effort and energy to securing the release of seven defectors who fled the North and were being held in China.  The case, which Seoul was handling quietly, became public.  South Korea’s Foreign Minister did not discuss details with the press, but she expressed concern for the safety of the refugees and emphasized the delicacy of discussions with China.

Six months later in November 2019, the Seoul government expelled and returned to Pyongyang two North Korean sailors who sought to defect and who were suspected of killing sixteen shipmates.  The incident including the return of the two sailors was not made public by the South Korean government until journalists discovered and publicized a text message confirming the repatriation.  The South Korean National Assembly launched an investigation into the matter.

The decision of the Moon Administration to return the two sailors was made without granting them access to an attorney, without a court hearing on the case, and without allowing them to appeal the government’s decision to repatriate them.  This was the first time ever that North Koreans were repatriated by the South Korean government because of crimes they were alleged to have committed in the North or because their intent to defect may have been dishonest.

That same month, 11 North Korean refugees crossed into Vietnam on their on their way to South Korea.  After their arrest for illegal entry in Vietnam, it was announced that they would be returned to North Korea.  The Moon Jae-in government in Seoul was criticized for failing to use its diplomatic influence with Hanoi to press for the refugees to be allowed to continue their journey to South Korea.  Despite South Korean media giving extensive publicity to the plight of the defectors, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul only pursued the issue after European organizations became involved.

There have been other indications of a change by Seoul.  In the March 2018 the Moon government’s budget boosted funds for inter-Korean cooperation while aid for South Korean human rights efforts were significantly cut, including a 31 percent reduction in aid for defectors.  The government justified that cut because the number of new refugees has declined.  The budget funding for human rights groups focused on North Korea was significantly cut back, despite no indication of progress on human rights issues in the North.  The Ministry of Unification’s Human Rights Foundation saw its funds cut 93 percent and the budget for the database maintained by the Ministry on human rights abuses by the North was cut by 74%.

Furthermore, in November 2019, the South Korean government did not sponsor the annual UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The South sponsored every annual UN resolution from 2008 to November 2019.  A letter to President Moon from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations questioned the South Korean government’s position on human rights, in particular failing to cosponsor the UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The letter also called for the South Korean government to investigate and publish the results of the investigation into the repatriation of the two North Korean fishermen whose basic human rights were violated under South Korean law.

This criticism of South Korea was particular noteworthy because Moon Jae-in is a human rights attorney and his Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha served for over six years as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.  South Korea’s search for reconciliation and reunification with North Korea, as well as the United States’ quest for denuclearization of the North, are awkward bedfellows with a policy of actively helping and protecting North Korean refugees.

Public support in South Korea for the plight of North Korean defectors has limited how far Seoul can cut back defector support in order to achieve other goals with Pyongyang.  Despite clear indications of what the Moon government would like to do in its support for defectors, the government announced that it would provide additional support for some 553 North Korean defectors who were facing difficult living conditions just a few months after the death by starvation of a defector and her young son.  It is clear that strong public sentiment in South Korea has constrained how far the government can go in cutting back on helping defectors.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from the PBS NewsHour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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2 Responses to “Number of North Korean Defectors Declines”


  1. […] defectors were not a major factor in the election results, however.  The total number of defectors resettled in the South over the last two-and-a-half decades is less than 35,000.  Although […]

  2. […] Claiming that the defector acquired the coronavirus in the South also reinforces the Kim regime’s message that life in South Korea for defectors from the North is difficult and […]

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