In the News – With crackdown, N. Korea puts a hold on defectors

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In the News – With crackdown, N. Korea puts a hold on defectors

By , Published: July 21

SEOUL — With tighter border security and harsher punishments for those who cross into China, North Korea has forced a swift and drastic drop-off in defections this year, according to aid groups and South Korean officials.

The crackdown, they say, coincides with the rise of new leader Kim Jong Eun, and suggests that his authoritarian police state is not only worried about people leaving the country, but also strong enough to stop them.

As many as 20,000 additional soldiers have been dispatched to the Chinese border, according to Seoul’s Open Radio for North Korea, which has a network of contacts in the North. Those guards, threatened with punishment of their own, have become less willing to take bribes from would-be defectors, other aid groups say.

As a result, outside experts say, the number of North Koreans entering the South after a circuitous journey through China is plummeting.

Last year, 2,706 North Koreans came to the South. During the first half of this year, there have been only 751 — a 42 percent decline compared with the same period a year earlier.

The unprecedented drop off reverses a 15-year trend. The downturn is especially jarring because it challenges an underlying assumption held by many analysts in the South that the North would face an ever-mounting problem keeping people within its borders. Indeed, after the North’s famine in the mid-1990s, the number of defectors arriving in the South rose exponentially — from fewer than 100 in 1997 to more than 1,000 in 2002 to nearly 3,000 in the past few years, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. Continue reading