The number of North Korean defectors entering South Korea experienced a substantial surge in 2023, nearly tripling compared to the previous two years.
Significant rise in defections: Government data from Seoul's Unification Ministry revealed that 196 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea last year, reported Yonhap News. The total number marked a nearly threefold increase compared to the past two years (63 defectors in 2021 and 67 in 2022) when pandemic-related border closures led to sharp declines in defections. After averaging over 1,000 defectors annually in the years before 2019, the number of North Koreans fleeing to South Korea dramatically dropped to a mere 229 in 2020.
Shift in demographics: More than half of the defectors, 99 individuals, were in their 20s and 30s, with 164 women and 32 men making the journey. There was also a notable rise in defections by North Korean diplomats, trade officials and students studying overseas, with around 10 individuals from elite groups defecting – the highest number since 2017.
Reasons behind the surge: The surge in defections is attributed to a combination of factors, including dissatisfaction with the North Korean regime and food shortages. In 2023, nearly 23% of defectors cited disillusionment with the regime as the primary reason for their escape, followed by 21.4% mentioning a food crisis.
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Changing routes: The Unification Ministry highlighted that the challenging situation within North Korea resulted in the diversification of defection routes. Many of last year's defectors left North Korea years ago and traversed through third countries, such as China, Laos or Myanmar, before reaching South Korea.
International response and challenges: China, a close ally of North Korea, considers defectors as illegal economic migrants and forcibly deports them under a border agreement, as per CNN. Activists emphasize the harsh consequences awaiting defectors upon their return to North Korea, including torture, sexual violence, hard labor, imprisonment or even execution by the North Korean state.
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