Sharp drop in numbers of North Korean defectors reaching safety in the south

The number of North Korean refugees finding safety in South Korea has dropped sharply this year amid an ongoing security crackdown in China, the country that represents their most common escape route.

Only 192 refugees made it south in the first quarter of 2018, 31% down on the same period in 2017, a year which overall saw the lowest annual figures of escapees since 2001, according to Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, a group helping to rescue defectors.

The figures, obtained by Mr Park from Seoul’s ministry of unification, show a downward long term trend of the numbers escaping the north, which began with a sharp drop in 2011 when Kim Jong-un came to power.

In an interview, Mr Park described the downward spiral as “very concerning”, attributing it primarily to “security on both sides of the border” and within China.

“The Chinese authorities are more top of what is going on within their borders and North Korean refugees get arrested not just in the northeast of China but even in the south and southwest, just before they get into southeast Asia,” he said.

“Last year was a particularly bad year,” Mr Park said. “The crackdowns in China were so widespread and so severe.”

Only 192 refugees from Kim Jong-Un's regime in North Korea made it south in the first quarter of 2018, a 31% drop on the previous year

Only 192 refugees from Kim Jong-Un’s regime in North Korea made it south in the first quarter of 2018, a 31% drop on the previous year


While the overall downward trend could be attributed in part to an improving economy under Kim Jong-un, the last year had seen citizens squeezed both by economic sanctions and by the tightening of barriers to their escape.

Of some 30,000 defectors who currently live in South Korea, most fled initially through China, then via southeast Asian countries including Thailand and Laos.

 “For those making it across the [North Korean] border, the Chinese authorities make the journey to the safety of a third country particularly challenging,” said Michael Glendinning, director of Connect North Korea, a UK-based registered charity helping refugees.  

“There have been a number of cases of large groups being caught and sent back to North Korea recently where they face punishment and increased surveillance.”

Mr Glendinning urged the international community to place pressure on the Chinese government to release any detained North Koreans to a safe country.

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