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In three months to the end of June, only 12 North Koreans entered South Korea, compared with 320 in the same period last year. The steep decline comes after North Korea abruptly shut down most of its land, sea and air borders in January.
Pyongyang put the protocols into practice rapidly in order to avoid contagion in light of the escalating crisis in Wuhan, China, at the time.
“The biggest reason behind the decline is that the national borders of these countries were closed after the outbreak of the coronavirus and cross-border movement became difficult,” said Yoh Sang-key, a spokesman for Seoul’s unification ministry, which has released the figures on defections since 2003.
“A more professional analysis is needed, but for now the decline in the number of incoming defectors appears to be affected by the shutdown of borders in neighbouring countries after the coronavirus outbreak emerged, which made it difficult for people to travel,” he told a regular briefing.
But Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organisation that helps scores of North Koreans escape every year, said the stringent travel limitations in China had a bigger effect since many defectors spend years in China before reaching South Korea via south-east Asia.
“The primary [factor] is the near-impossibility of North Korean refugees leaving from China,” he said.
But while the two-year timeline in which no defectors have returned to North Korea coincides with a period of relative détente between the two Koreas, one expert warned against reading too much into the data.
“Some of it could, of course, be cases that the ROKG [Republic of Korea Government] doesn’t have data on,” said LiNK’s Sokeel Park.
“These are also small numbers so we need to be careful.”
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Kim Young-hui, a North Korean-born researcher on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) economy at the Korea Development Bank (KDB), agreed that the pandemic was likely the reason for the continued drop in defections.
“Coronavirus made countries shut the borders, and this is likely the top reason that makes escaping North Korea harder these days,” Ms Kim told NK News.
“Also, the cost for defecting was already getting more expensive in recent years,” she added.
“To cross the Tumen River, you’ll need around 10,000,000 Korean won per person.”
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“With the increased risk, the cost increases too.”
Defectors who are intercepted trying to escape face penalties including prison sentences, torture or even execution.
Those who make it to China and are found are deported to North Korea, where they face the same punishment.
North Korea and China have face criticism by international experts over their stricter security guidelines since 2012, after Kim Jong Un took power in North Korea and Xi Jinping became China’s president.
The change in leadership resulted in a significant decline in successful defections.
According to South Korean data, the number of people who escape North Korea and enter South Korea fell from almost 3,000 in 2009 to just over 1,000 last year.
It is estimated the number of North Koreans in China ranges from 50,000 to 200,000, but there are no official figures available.
Mr Park said it was now a “major concern” that China was using public health reasons to excuse the increased uptake of technological surveillance and security restrictions to manipulate the movement of people during the coronavirus crisis.
“This is a very significant escalation of that trend,” he said.
North Korean observers are unsure as to whether the poverty-stricken nation, which has extraordinarily lacking healthcare services, has been able to successfully isolate itself from the Covid-19 pandemic.
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