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The sharp decline in the number of North Korean refugees who have defected to South Korea this year has alarmed human rights advocates. Estimates provided by South Korea’s government indicate that only 1,400 made the perilous journey this year compared to 2,737 during the previous year. This 50 percent decrease dropped defection rates to a seven-year low.
Experts believe that the downturn emerged as Kim Jung Eun’s nascent administration enacted fresh efforts to lock down the nation’s borders. According to Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean Studies Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the new leadership in Pyongyang has been cracking down on underground defector communities in China as well as securing their borders in order to assert its legitimacy. Under-reported factors such as the South Korean government’s decision to discourage the efforts of former North Korean refugees, now settled in South Korea, to bring over family members has also contributed to the downward trend.
While the international community had hoped that the new leader would push for stronger economic reforms to improve the quality of life for his citizens and normalize ties with the global community, North Korean citizens remain as desperate as ever inside the country’s borders. “There are few indications that the food situation or the protection of basic liberties in North Korea have improved this year,” says Dr. Lee.
China is also contributing to controlled security along the border it shares with its regional ally. Oh Gyeong-Seob, a Fellow at the Sejong Institute, states that China has been strengthening control and inspection of its three Northeast Provinces. Peter Jung, a missionary who heads the NGO Justice for North Korea, adds that China became aggravated by the negative international attention it received earlier this year in February when advocates demanded the release of 40 refugees detained in China.
Although Kim’s efforts to consolidate his grip on national power by tightening the border do not surprise many outside observers, South Korea’s role in the declining number of defectors has been rarely addressed publicly. One humanitarian advocate who wishes to remain anonymous claims that efforts to assist defectors were hampered due to the blacklisting of former defectors in South Korea whom helped refugees defect to China and to South Korea.
Figures provided by the Ministry of Unification, the South Korean government bureau responsible for facilitating communications between the two Koreas and operating a resettlement program for defectors, showed an unprecedented growth in defectors between 2000-2012 as the defector community had grown consistently each year—from 312 in 2000 to 2,737 in 2011. Over the past decade, female defectors have outnumbered male refugees, at times by a measure of four to one.
David Hawk, a scholar at the Institute for Human Rights at Columbia University and author of “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, explains that a rise in defectors to ROK stems from initial waves of defectors using their income or government grants to bring more family members into the country.
North Koreans who manage to leave the country often struggle to bridge the social and cultural gaps between the community that they have left behind and the one in which they now reside, he adds, “There is a steady drip of stories about defector unhappiness and their lack of successful integration into the very competitive South Korean society,” Hawk says. A survey conducted by the International Crisis Group noted that a third of the defector community in South Korea suffers from depression.
This past October, Pyongyang publicized the “re-defection” of several people individuals whom had decided to return to North Korea. When asked to provide reasons for their “re-defection” during press conferences, the refugees cited their inability to adapt to South Korean society as well as deep feelings of shame for betraying their state.
However, analysts believe that these events were the work of the state’s Musan National Security Agency (MNSA), which coaxed defectors back to the North in order to use them for propaganda purposes. “It would only make sense that North Korea would send MNSA agents to the South to pose as defectors etc., and have them cultivate relations with other North Korean defectors in the South to try to win them over—for intelligence” says Dr. Lee.
Historically, most North Korean refugees choose to settle in South Korea after they have defected. However, more nations have been hosting North Koreans in recent years. The United States is currently home to 123 former North Korean citizens. The North Korean Human Rights Act, initially passed in 2004 and renewed in 2012, provides resettlement programs for the minority that wishes to settle in the US.