According to South Korea, the list contains “elite” diplomats

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — The number of North Korean defectors entering South Korea is set to nearly triple in 2023 compared with the previous two years, officials said Thursday. This figure includes a large number of youth and members of the North Korean elite.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry recorded 196 defectors entering the country last year, a briefing said. According to government figures, more than half were aged between 20 and 30 and about 84% were women or girls.

The total figure is only a fraction of pre-pandemic levels (1,047 defectors in 2019), but represents a significant increase despite a sharp decline during COVID-19.

North Korea closed its already tight borders in 2020, leaving the hermit country even more isolated. According to government data, only 63 defectors entered South Korea in 2021 and 67 in 2022.

The country began a partial reopening in 2023, allowing citizens living abroad to return and resuming international flights to some countries, including China and Russia. But the Unification Ministry said some North Koreans living abroad decided not to return and instead fled to the South.

About 1 in 10 of those described as elite North Koreans defected last year, according to the ministry, the highest number for this group since 2017. These include “diplomats, other officials and foreign-based students (who) were asked to return last year when the pandemic situation entered a new phase,” a Reunification Ministry official said.

“Many people would have found this unacceptable after experiencing what it is like to live in the free world, knowing that the economic situation in North Korea has become even worse and internal controls have become stronger,” the official said.

The ministry said no further details could be given for security reasons.

South Korean officials said the most cited reason for defection in 2023 was dissatisfaction with the ruling Kim regime, followed by food shortages and hunger in North Korea, which had previously been the most cited reason in recent years.

While millions of North Koreans live in poverty under the dynastic dictatorship of leader Kim Jong Un, the country’s wealthy elite, such as top government officials and their families, have access to luxuries like air conditioning, coffee and even smartphones. The luxury is access, although access to phones may only be by phone. A heavily censored government intranet.

These residents mostly live in the capital Pyongyang, where a privileged few enjoy amenities such as cinemas, department stores and indoor gyms.

Most of those who entered South Korea last year had left North Korea years ago, having stayed in third countries for long periods of time before traveling to Seoul, the ministry said, adding that the diversification of defection routes meant “inbounds.” “Very difficult situation” is North Korea.

How do North Koreans leave the country?

Many defectors cross the North Korean border to China by crossing the Yalu River that separates the two countries. After entering China, many people cross the border illegally into Laos or Myanmar and head to the South Korean embassy in those countries or head to Thailand.

While the South Korean government is working to support the settlement of North Korean defectors entering the country, it is keeping a close eye on the possibility that the number of defectors could slow if North Korea opens its border with China. -May increase gradually, the ministry said.

China, a close ally of Pyongyang, does not consider North Korean defectors as refugees but as illegal economic migrants. They are forcibly deported under the border agreement with North Korea.

According to activists, once returned to North Korea, defectors face potential torture, sexual violence, forced labor, imprisonment in political or re-education camps, or even execution by the North Korean state.

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