Life in Pyongyang Getting Grim? Changing Trends of N. Korean Defections Point to Maybe Yes
SEOUL, Oct. 9 (Yonhap) -- More North Koreans, including elites, have defected to South Korea in search of a better life, with the number of asylum seekers set to top the 30,000 mark soon, experts said Sunday, a development that reflects the grim lives of the people living in the reclusive country.
As of end-September, the number of North Korean defectors reached about 29,830 in total, with 1,036 North Koreans having come to the South in the first nine months of this year, according to data by Seoul's unification ministry.
The number of defectors escaping to the South peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but the pace of annual growth had slowed since 2011 as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tightened border controls and beefed up domestic surveillance, analysts say.
But this year, the pace picked up at a time when more North Korean elites, such as diplomats, have abandoned the North's repressive regime.'
"Since the execution of Kim's uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013, defections by the privileged class have risen due to the North leader's reign of terror," said Sohn Kwang-joo, the head of the Korea Hana Foundation, the state-run agency in charge of offering support to defectors.
The reasons for defection markedly changed as more North Koreans have fled the North's regime for non-economic reasons since 2000, according to a poll by the Ministry of Unification.
Before 2001, nearly 70 percent of defectors cited hunger and economic difficulties as the main reasons for their escape, but the portion of such people fell to 12 percent between 2014 and 2016, the survey showed.
Data showed that more recently a growing number of North Koreans have deserted the regimented country for non-economic reasons -- aspirations for freedom and dissatisfaction with the North's regime and tighter surveillance, it showed.
The portion of such defectors shot up to 87.8 percent in the 2014-2016 period compared with 33.3 percent tallied in years before 2001.
"The so-called 'immigration-style' defections have increased, as more North Koreans are seeking a better life for themselves amid signs that the regime is resorting to terror tactics to keep people in line," said a government official.
Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took office in late 2011, the country's economy posted modest growth and there was an increase in marketplaces, which played a part in the decline of defections driven by economic distress, the ministry said.
"A rise in immigration-style defections seems to be influenced by more North Koreans coming in contact with South Korean culture and information," the official said.
The data showed that while 19 percent of defectors who escaped before 2001 viewed themselves as having above-average income when they lived in the North, the corresponding data rose to 55.9 percent for those who deserted the communist country after 2014.
What's notable as changing in recent years is an increase in defections by North Korean elite members, which Seoul says points to signs of cracks in the North's regime.
"In the face of international sanctions, North Korean officials working abroad are under growing pressure to repatriate hard currency to the regime," Kim Soo-am, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), said in a report. "Concerns about the future of their children are also seen as a reason for their defections."
A case in point is Thae Yong-ho, who defected to South Korea with his family in late July when he served as minister at the North's embassy in London. As the No. 2 man at the mission he has become one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to have defected to the South.
Seoul's unification ministry cited Thae's reasons for defection as disillusionment with the regime under Kim Jong-un and aspiration for a liberal democracy. Worries over his children's future were also factored into his decision.
Kim Chol-song, a third secretary at North Korea's trade mission in Russia, is known to have defected to the South with his family in late July. A ranking health ministry official stationed at North Korea's mission in Beijing is also believed to have recently come to Seoul.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that the largest-ever number of elite defectors came to the South over the past eight to nine months.
"It means even the privileged class thinks that there is no hope in North Korea," Yun told a TV program last week.
Experts said with the number of defectors set to surpass the 30,000 mark, the government should refine its resettlement policy to help them better assimilate into the South.
"The purpose of the policy has changed from providing protection to helping defectors stand on their own feet," said researcher Kim at the KINU. "Seoul should implement a policy catering to defectors by taking into account various factors including the reasons for defections and backgrounds."