The number of defectors arriving in South Korea in the first quarter of this year declined to 61% of the 2011 first quarter figure, according to new data from the Ministry of Unification.
This year saw 160 people arrive in January, 90 in February and 116 in March, a total of 366 and an average of 122 new arrivals per month. This compares unfavorably with the 600 people who arrived in the same period of last year.
Given that more than half of new arrivals already have family settled in South Korea (who then help them to defect in turn), and since it normally takes such people 30-45 days to go from defecting to arriving in South Korea, those people arriving in February and March of this year are predominantly those who defected immediately after Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17th, 2011. Therefore, it is probable that the sharp reduction in numbers is a direct result of enhanced border controls following Kim’s death.
A source well aware of how the border between China and North Korea operates told Daily NK that it is not surprising that the numbers have starkly declined, since not only is it hard to physically cross the border these days, it is not even easy to call North Korea.
On this, a Ministry of Unification official also commented, “Following Kim Jong Il’s death last year, border patrols were strengthened and defection itself became more difficult. In particular, the repatriation of defectors inside China became an international issue and so these kinds of measures were strengthened.”
As a result, it is possible that the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea could dip below 2,000 this year for the first time since it first topped the same figure back in 2006.