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Increasingly more North Korean dissenters escaping to South

Elite defections mark “highest in recent years”

By Kim Arin

Published : Jan. 18, 2024 - 15:42

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South Korea on Thursday reported a recent increase in defections of elite and younger North Koreans, who say they left because they are anti-regime.

The Ministry of Unification in Seoul overseeing inter-Korean affairs said the number of defectors to the South hit 196 in 2023, which is about the triple the number of the two preceding years -- 2022’s 67 and 2021’s 63 -- when COVID-19 was still raging.

According to the ministry, the defections of members of the North Korean elite seen last year were “some of the highest in recent years,” the exact count of which cannot be disclosed for their safety.

More than half of the 196 defectors were in their 20s and 30s, the ministry added. About one in eight were girls and women.

The ministry noted that the most frequently cited reason for defectors leaving North Korea last year was dissent to the Kim Jong-un regime. In the past, hunger had been the prime reason for defecting for most.

Most of them had to pass through another country before they could get to South Korea, the ministry found.

This picture shows the wooden boat a North Korean family used to cross the sea to get to South Korea. (photograph provided to The Korea Herald) This picture shows the wooden boat a North Korean family used to cross the sea to get to South Korea. (photograph provided to The Korea Herald)

Over the year there were at least two escapes from North Korea via the sea, a route that has been rarely used.

In May last year, a family of nine crossed the maritime border west of the Korean Peninsula on a wooden boat.

Two brothers, who moved the family out of the country, were then quoted as telling Seoul authorities that their decision to escape was inspired by South Korean TV they had been watching in secret. They also told authorities here that strict COVID-19 rules were forcing North Koreans to resort to cannibalism and other extreme measures to find food.

Then in October, another family of four arrived in South Korea on a boat across the maritime border on the east coast.

South Korean intelligence authorities believe Pyongyang began to tighten its watch on elites stationed abroad last year to block them defecting, following a series of defections among senior officials from around May 2022.