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Number of N. Korean defectors rising, Seoul says

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea — The high-profile defection of a senior North Korean diplomat was part of a growing trend of people fleeing to the South this year, according to government statistics released Wednesday.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul said 894 North Koreans defected from January through August, a 15 percent increase compared with 777 who fled to the South in the same period last year.

That raises the total number of North Korean defections to 29,688, with the figure on pace to surpass 30,000 by the end of the year, the ministry said.

The peninsula was split into a U.S.-backed South and a Soviet-backed North in the wake of World War II. The two sides fought a bitter war from 1950-53 and remain divided by the world’s most heavily militarized border after that fighting ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

The report comes on the heels of the defection last month of Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador in London, one of the highest-ranking North Koreans to flee. South Korea’s government said he became disillusioned with the regime of Kim Jong Un, the third leader in the family dynasty that has ruled the North since it was founded in 1948.

The Unification Ministry said the data suggest that more North Koreans are fleeing the isolated communist country Kim moves to tighten his rule, reversing a decline in defections in recent years.

Defections peaked at 2,914 in 2009 as the previous regime of Kim Jong Il channeled massive resources into the military and the country suffered from widespread famine, according to ministry statistics. But the number ebbed after the younger Kim took control in 2011 and strengthened border controls and surveillance of the population.

This year’s increase is a sign that even elite members of society with the resources to overcome the limitations are seeking to escape, according to the ministry.

“The costs for defections have increased as Kim Jong Un’s regime has intensified crackdowns on those who attempt to flee the nation,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said during a regular media briefing.

The ministry said a growing number of defectors are seeking more opportunities and better lives in the South compared with the past when the bulk were largely from the lower class seeking better economic conditions.

The number of defectors who consider themselves middle class jumped to 55.9 percent after 2014, compared with just 19 percent before 2001, the ministry said, citing surveys it conducts.

North Korea also has stepped up pressure on overseas workers and diplomats to send more money home as the regime is squeezed by U.N. economic sanctions that were tightened after it conducted its fourth nuclear test followed by a long-range rocket launch early this year.

A group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in China defected to South Korea in April, followed by three others in June.

Stars and Stripes staffer Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

gamel.kim@stripes.com

Twitter: @kimgamel

People watch a news program showing a file image of Thae Yong Ho, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea in August 2016. The high-profile defection is part of a growing trend of people fleeing to the South this year, according to government statistics released Wednesday.
AHN YOUNG-JOON/AP

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