Human Rights, Refugees & Migration

Number of North Korean Defectors Drops to Lowest Level in Two Decades

The number of North Korean defectors (refugees) reaching South Korea in 2020 dropped sharply, dipping to a new low since the refugee outflow began in the late 1990s, as the North was suffering from the famine during the era known as the Arduous March. The South Korean Unification Ministry reported that during the entire year of 2020, only 229 North Koreans sought admission and were resettled in the South—down from 1,047 who arrived in 2019 and 1,137 who arrived in 2018.

The number of refugees in 2020 was significantly lower than any time in the previous two decades. When defectors began to arrive in South Korea in the late 1990s, 947 arrived in the two or three years through 1998. In the three years from 1999–2001, an additional 1,043 arrived. In 2002, the number given refuge in the South was 1,142, and from that time the number increased to its highest level of 2,914 in 2009. Since that time, the number of defectors slowly fluctuated downward, but well over a thousand arrived annually until 2020. The total number of defectors resettled in the South through 2020 is 33,752.

North Korea’s Covid-19 Measures Lead to Border Closure with China

The most immediate cause for the decline in defectors reaching the South is significantly tighter border control in the North to prevent spread of the Covid-19 virus. One year ago in January 2020, the North closed borders to all tourist travel. Within a few weeks, the borders were closed to all border crossings—not just tourists. This border closure was so strictly enforced that North Korean border guards were directed not to allow North Korean citizens who had illegally crossed into China to be repatriated to the North by Chinese border guards.

Another indication of how serious this became is that the North not only stopped people from crossing the border, but cut back on trade with China as well. As a result of these border restrictions to stem the contagion of Covid-19, trade dropped precipitously in March 2020. That month, North Korean exports to China fell 96 percent from the previous month to a value of only $616,000, and imports from China declined 91 percent to only $18 million. Chinese customs data showed a continued decline, and in October 2020 Beijing exported goods valued at only $253,000 to the North—a drop of 99 percent from previous levels. China is by far North Korea’s largest source of imports.

According to intelligence reports, North Korea executed at least one of its own border officials who violated the draconian Covid-19 quarantine restrictions and brought goods from China across the border into North Korea. South Korean intelligence officials also reported that the North refused to take delivery of 110,000 tons of rice from China, despite impending food shortages. When a Korean who had defected to the South later “re-defected” to the North, Pyongyang placed the entire city of Kaesong on a strict quarantine, despite the fact that South Korea said that on the basis of testing and contact tracing he was not infected with the Covid-19 virus.

With much tighter border control because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is even more difficult for North Koreans to cross the border into China in order to escape to South Korea. Furthermore, the pandemic controls have resulted in greater restriction on all movement inside North Korea. Would-be border crossers are finding it more difficult even to get near the border where they might make an escape attempt.

Other Factors Also Contribute to Reduced Defections

North Korea has also engaged in a longer term effort to publicize how difficult life in the South is for those who defect. This effort was begun soon after Kim Jong-un became supreme leader. High profile media events involving defectors who returned from the South focused on how difficult life was, and how welcome they were when they returned to the North. Media attention given to the experiences of these “re-defectors” in South Korea has been used to discourage migration to the South.

Border tightening by China has made it more difficult for defectors to pass through on their way to South Korea. Because the North-South border is to heavily fortified, that route out is virtually impossible to use, and the route through China requires much longer travel to escape because the easiest border to cross out of China is the less populated southwest border with Laos, Thailand, or Vietnam. Chinese officials have banned citizens of several countries with high levels of Covid-19 infection from entering the country. Russia has been identified as a source of Covid-19 infections, and the area of concern is Northeast China near the border with North Korea. As a result, border crossings and internal travel in China are now much more tightly controlled, which makes it even more difficult for defectors to move through China.

Another element contributing to the decline in defectors going to South Korea is that conditions in the South have become less welcoming. In the past, South Korea provided generous support to defectors to build new lives in the South. Conservative governments used the defector issue to denigrate the North and highlight its human rights abuses. As the administration of President Moon Jae-in has sought to improve relations with the North, South Korea’s traditional support for defectors has been an irritant in relations with the North and the government has been less generous in helping defectors.

For example, in November 2019, two North Korean sailors who sought to defect and who were suspected of killing 16 shipmates were expelled and returned to Pyongyang. The incident, including the return of the sailors, was not made public by the South Korean government until journalists accidentally discovered and publicized a text message confirming the repatriation. The South’s decision to return the sailors was made without granting them access to an attorney, without a court hearing, and without allowing them to appeal the government’s decision. This was the first time that North Koreans were repatriated against their will by the South because of crimes they were alleged to have committed in the North, or because their intent to defect may have been dishonest.

Shortly after that incident, 11 defectors were captured in Vietnam on their way to South Korea. Hanoi announced that the refugees would be returned to North Korea. The South Korean government was criticized for failing to use diplomatic pressure to permit the defectors to go to the South. South Korean media gave significant coverage to the plight of the refugees, but the Foreign Ministry became engaged in the issue only after European governments and human rights organizations became involved in the case.

The South Korean government has also been cutting back on funding to assist refugees from the North. In March 2018, the Moon government’s budget increased funds for inter-Korean cooperation projects with Pyongyang, while aid for human rights efforts was significantly cut back. Aid for defectors was cut by 31 percent. The cutback was justified by the government because of the decline in the number of defectors.

These cutbacks were made shortly before a defector and her young son died, apparently of starvation, in Seoul during the summer of 2019. Public outcry over the death of the mother and her son led the government in January 2020 to provide additional support for 553 North Korean defectors who were facing difficult living conditions.

It is impossible to tell what impact living conditions for defectors in South Korea might have on decisions to defect to the South. The North has certainly highlighted the issues in South Korea that are unwelcoming for defectors as previously noted. But the increased difficulty of crossing the border to leave the North and more aggressive efforts by Chinese police authorities to stop defector travel through China are the principal reasons for the steep decline in refugees leaving the North over the past year. Nevertheless, the North’s propaganda campaign over the last decade to highlight difficult conditions in the South have contributed to the decline in defections.

Number of North Korean Refugees Reaching the United States Also Declining

The number of North Korean defectors reaching the United States has also declined, though it has never been a large number. Resettlement in the United States takes much longer to process. It takes a matter of months for South Korea to approve resettlement, while getting permission to go to the United States requires a year or more, during which time the refugees must wait in a detention facility in Southeast Asia. Also, going to the United States requires learning a new language, and the culture and tradition are new and different. The language and culture in South Korea are familiar, although seven decades of separation have created some differences. Additionally, many of the refugees that flee the North are joining family members who have already left, and most are living in South Korea. The benefits and assistance to resettle are considerably more generous in South Korea than in the United States. For all these reasons, the number choosing to go to the United States has always been small.

Since North Korean refugees began coming to the United States in 2006, only 220 have resettled in the United States. In the last four years, the number of arrivals in the United States has declined. It is unlikely that the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration are much of a factor, because the number of North Koreans coming to the U.S. is quite small. The number arriving in the last four fiscal years is as follows:

FY 2020: 2
FY 2019: 1
FY 2018: 5
FY 2017: 12

The belief that North Korean defectors seeking to come to the United States should have that opportunity was an important factor in the adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. The House Foreign Affairs Committee report explaining the basis for adopting the legislation made that clear. The U.S. Department of State and the Citizenship and Immigration Service have conscientiously worked to see that those North Korean refugees who seek and who qualify for admission to the United States are given the opportunity.

The number of refugees coming to the United States had declined even before the Covid-19 pandemic. A report in the New York Times in late 2018 was headlined “U.S. Admission of North Korean Defectors Has Slowed to a Trickle.” With current conditions making it even more difficult for defectors to leave North Korea and transit China successfully, that number is likely to dry up, and it is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.