Fewer North Korean defectors as COVID helps regime tighten grip

Numbers slumped to just 229 last year, far below the 1,047 in 2019 as Pyongyang shut down its border in the face of COVID-19.

North Korean defector Lee Soon-keum is the daughter of a South Korean POW, who was later executed upon his return to the North [File: Sunghee Hwang/AFP]

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea plummeted last year after Pyongyang closed its border in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul’s unification ministry said on Wednesday.

The figure has been on a steady decline for some time but slumped to just 229 last year, the ministry said, far below the 2019 tally of 1,047.

The vast majority of defectors first travel to neighbouring China, sometimes staying there for years before making their way on to the South via third countries, and only a handful risk crossing the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

The North has not confirmed a single case of COVID-19 – although experts have long said it is unlikely to have escaped the pandemic – and in September the commander of US forces in the South said Pyongyang had issued shoot-to-kill orders in its border areas.

It imposed a strict border closure last January to try to protect itself from the virus that first emerged in China, its main ally.

“It looks like the number of [North Korean] people entering the South decreased due to the effects of North Korean-Chinese border control and restrictions of movement from third countries due to COVID-19,” Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement.

In one of last year’s most high-profile cases, an unarmed man was picked up within the civilian control line near the town of Goseong in November after cutting his way through the border fences. He later told South Korean authorities he wanted to defect.

Inter-Korean relations have been in a deep freeze following the collapse of a summit in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in 2019 over what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies