SEOUL - Preliminary figures suggest North Korea has stepped up border security to discourage defectors, South Korean officials said Thursday.

The South Korea Ministry of Unification said an estimated 1,509 North defectors found their way into the South in 2012, a significant drop from the annual numbers for the previous six years.

"Although there may be several reasons, one of the main reasons would be that North Korea has been watching its borders since Kim Jong Il's death" in December 2011, and the subsequent emergence of his son, Kim Jong Un, as the reclusive country's leader, a Unification Ministry official said.

From 2006 to 2011, the number of defectors who eventually made their way to South Korea - usually by way of the China-North Korean border - ranged from 2,022 to 2,929, with 2,706 making the move in 2011.

The preliminary total for 2012 would represent a 44 percent drop from the year before. More than 24,000 North Korean refugees now live in South Korea, according to government estimates.

"Our position is … we are going to accept all the defectors who leave North Korea and then would like to enter South Korea," the Unification Ministry official said. "It's not our position that we want more defectors."

Asked if there was anything the South could do to encourage more North Korean defections, she said, "There's nothing the government would like to do in that respect."

HEADING SOUTHNorth Korean defectors who resettled in South Korea2002 - 1,1432003 - 1,2822004 - 1,8962005 - 1,3822006 - 2,0222007 - 2,5482008 - 2,8042009 - 2,9292010 - 2,4022011 - 2,7062012 - 1,509*

*PreliminarySource: South Korea Ministry of Unification

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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