DPRK defection numbers / trends update

(2011-7-14) The International Crisis Group published a report on DPRK defectors living in South Korea.  Here is the executive summary.  Here is the full report (PDF).  Below are some statistics that others might like to know for future reference (Footnotes can be found in the original document):

There were only 86 defectors from 1990 to 1994, and the numbers remained under 100 each year until 1999. North Korea’s deteriorating economy and a subsequent famine in the mid-1990s, along with an erosion of border controls that opened an escape route into China, began to push the numbers higher by 2000. In 2001, 583 North Koreans arrived in South Korea. The following year the figure nearly doubled to 1,138. By 2007, about 10,000 North Korean defectors had arrived in the South, and by December 2010, the number reached 20,360. The number is expected to remain steady at about 2,500-3,000 per year or even to increase, although slightly fewer defectors arrived in 2010 due to tightened restrictions in North Korea, including greater punishment for attempting to defect.

In 1998, only 12 per cent of the 947 defectors in the South were female. But they surpassed males in 2002, and in 2010 they accounted for 76 per cent of the 2,376 defectors who arrived in the South. By January 2011, the cumulative total of defectors nineteen years of age and younger was 3,174 – 15.4 per cent of all defectors in the South.

About 70 per cent of the defectors arriving recently have graduated from middle school or high school, about 9 per cent have graduated from junior colleges, and about 8 per cent are college graduates. About 50 per cent were unemployed or dependents before they left the North, and about 39 per cent were workers.

According to Pak Chŏn-ran [Park Jeon-ran], a specialist on defectors at Seoul National University’s Institute for Unification Studies, “the health status of defectors who left their families in the North is five times worse than that of defectors who escaped North Korea with relatives or friends”.107 She also found in a study that 20 per cent of ailments afflicting defectors were psychosomatic. The medical staff at a government reintegration centre reported that about 70 per cent of their patients exhibited symptoms of depression or other stress-related disorders.

In 2007, researchers from Seoul National University disclosed that in interviews conducted with over 200 defectors, 80 per cent indicated they had contracted at least one ailment since arriving in the South. In April of the same year, the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs released a study on the health of 6,500 defectors who had arrived in the South between 2000 and 2005. Some 1.8 per cent were infected with syphilis in 2004 and 2.1 per cent in 2005. About 20 per cent of 700 women aged twenty to 49 suffered from some type of gynaecological disorder.

The Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reports that the average height and weight of defectors is much lower than their South Korean counterparts. The average North Korean male defector is 164.4cm tall and weighs 60.2kg, compared to the average South Korean man, who stands 171.4cm tall and weighs 72kg. The figures for North Korean female defectors and South Korean women are: 154.2cm and 158.4cm; 52.8kg and 57.1kg. The average teenage male defector’s height is 155.7cm, 13.5cm less than the average South Korean counterpart; the average weight is 47.3kg, 13.5kg less than that of the South Korean. The average heights and weights for teenage female defectors and South Korean teenage females are: 151.1cm and 159.4cm; 46.9kg and 52.3kg.

In January 2011, only 50 per cent of defectors were employed (10,248 of 20,539), and most of these were in unskilled manual labour jobs (7,901, or 77 per cent of those employed). Only 439 defectors (4 per cent) were working in skilled jobs, and 381 were working in administrative positions.

Those who do find work earn on average W1.27 million (about $1,170) per month, which is just above the minimum subsistence level for a family of three.

These levels of unemployment persist despite subsidies for employers who hire defectors; the government provides up to W500,000 of monthly salaries for the first year and up to W700,000 of monthly salaries for the second year.

Many defectors reach the South with the help of people known as brokers. The journey can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $15,000. Many brokers will defer payment until the government in Seoul has paid resettlement money. To prevent a developing business in bringing defectors to the South, in 2005 the government cut the payments from a W10 million (about $9,400) lump sum to W6 million (about $5,600) paid out over several years. This has left many defectors with considerable debts.

More posts on this topic below:

2011-5-16) According to the Choson Ilbo, a growing number of DPRK refugees are moving onto third countries (and back to the DPRK):

An increasing number of North Korean defectors who are unable to settle down in the South move to third countries. According to a U.S. government report in June last year, the number of North Korean defectors who entered the United States increased from 27 in 2006 to 48 in 2007. Between 2006 and 2009, 665 defectors from the North entered the U.K. to ask for asylum, and 217 sought residence in Canada between 2000 and 2009.

A considerable number of such North Korean defectors who have applied for asylum in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere failed to adapt to life in the South, defector support organizations say.

But they often find it difficult to adapt to life in third countries as well, starting with the language barrier. “Life in Canada isn’t easy either,” said a 48-year-old North Korean who defected to the South in 2008 and now lives in Canada. “Most North Koreans who have come to Canada regret the step.” One 36-year-old North Korean who came to the South in January 2004 and left for the U.K. in 2007 returned to the South early last year, admitting that his attempts to settle there failed.

One 45-year-old North Korean who defected to the South in 2003 even returned to the North in 2007. A factory manager in Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, he failed to cope with life in the South and is said to have asked for a pardon after donating to the regime all the money he earned in the South.

(2011-7-15) According to the Choson Ilbo, the UK is turning into a popular destination for DPRK defectors:

Some 581 North Korean defectors have been given asylum in the United Kingdom, making them the largest group of all defectors in countries other than South Korea.

VOA on Thursday quoted unpublished data by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees showing that altogether 917 North Korean refugees have been given asylum in other countries. The U.K. was followed by Germany with 146, the Netherlands with 32, Australia and the U.S. with 25 each and Canada with 23.

Most of the North Koreans there first tried to settle in South Korea. “It’s difficult for North Korean defectors to seek asylum in foreign countries without going through South Korea, and although there are no statistics we believe that quite a lot of defectors living abroad hold South Korean citizenship,” a government official said.

In a parliamentary audit last year, Grand National Party lawmaker Hong Jung-wook of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee said some 1,000 North Koreans have applied for asylum in the U.K. alone since 2004, 70 percent of them presumably holding South Korean citizenship.

Kim Sung-min, a former defector himself and now the president of Free North Korea Radio, explained many of the defectors “originally wanted to go to the U.S. but went to the U.K. instead because word of mouth had it that asylum criteria in the U.S. are too strict.”

“North Koreans have a favorable view of the U.K. because the James Bond movies used to be shown there,” one defector said. “They often dream of the U.K. because they were mainly indoctrinated against the U.S.”

One defector who lives in Britain said, “It makes sense for penniless defectors to settle in the U.K. because the British government gives them almost free housing, a monthly subsidy of W700,000 (US$1=W1,059), and free education.” Women especially are drawn to the U.K. because British society “provides care for women,” he added.

Another defector said North Koreans also favor the U.K. because they want their children to learn English.

But it is getting more difficult for North Koreans to seek asylum in the U.K. “At one time the U.K. was the easiest country for defectors to go to,” a man who helps defectors apply for asylum abroad said. “But that’s no longer true, so Canada is emerging as an alternative.”

Applying for asylum in a foreign country costs about US$3,000, including a broker’s fee of $1,000.

(2011-5-14) According to Yonhap, the number of DPRK defectors has topped 21,000:

The number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea topped the 21,000 mark in April in the five months since November last year, government officials said Saturday.

According to the Unification Ministry, the number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea came to 21,165 as of April 17.

The number of North Korean defectors in South Korea breached the 20,000 mark for the first time in November last year.

The number has been on the rise since 2005, aside from a decrease in 2010.

Last year, 2,423 North Koreans defectors came to South Korea, slightly down from 2,927 in 2009.

(2011-5-10) And the Daily NK talks about the effect of growing defection numbers on DPRK society:

Defection has wrought big changes in many North Korean households. Acts of defection usually result in families becoming divided or disintegrating. According to the Ministry of Unification, the percentage of women among the more than 20,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea has exceeded that of men since 2002, now approaching 75%. Of all the women included in the data, over half have spouses or children still in the North. The statistics for North Korean defectors living in other countries such as China are thought to be similar.

The defection of women with family in North Korea has in most cases resulted in the disintegration of those families. This is related to the fact that ever since the mid-1990s, women have been the primary source of income for most families, either as merchants or other occupations. According to the “White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea in 2010”, published by the Korean Bar Association based on interviews with 200 North Korean defectors, 70.5% of women replied that they had previously been responsible for the household finances.

Of course, the defection of women who had economically supported their respective households leaves husbands with a new weight of responsibility, one they are ill-equipped to bear.

Worsening economic terms have essentially forced the North Korean authorities to coerce men to stay at their officially sanctioned workplaces so to keep their grip on the North Korean people in spite of being unable to pay their wages or hand out rations since most factories are idle or working at vastly reduced capacity. Even if that were not so, the official wage, 5,000 won per month, would not support a family.

Sources in the North say that this situation necessitates most husbands starting new families. One source in North Hamkyung province explained, “Most of the men whose wives are reported missing start new families”.

The government does not see divorce as an honorable act, stipulating in Article 20, Clause 2 of the Family Law that a divorce can only be granted through court proceedings. Furthermore, it regulates divorce by way of policy, by imposing limits on acceptable conditions for divorce and setting a high stamp duty on the act.

However, divorce is supposedly more easily obtained during elections for the Supreme People’s Assembly or, of course, through bribery.

Kim, a woman who arrived in South Korea in 2010, explained her situation, saying, “I heard that my husband lived with a new acquaintance for about two years before applying to the People’s Safety Ministry for a marriage license during the election to the Supreme People’s Assembly in 2008. If you register during an election, you can get a divorce without having to go through unnecessary procedures.”

Lee, who came to South Korea in 2009 added, “When elections are not on, you can bribe the civil registration department of the Safety Ministry with cigarettes or alcohol, then tell them that your wife is ‘missing’. They will then erase her name and replace it with that of the new woman.”

Previously, reporters of missing persons were subject to further interrogation as to the whys and wherefores of the incident, but with an ever growing number of such cases, internal sources say that the agents do not ask the specifics any longer.

Of course, with a growing number of husbands starting new families, the issue of raising children is becoming a societal problem. Oh, a 38-year old female who defected from the North last May, said that her husband has dumped their daughter at her elder sister’s house and is now living with another woman.

Children are usually left under the watch of other women. Most husbands apparently send them to the relatives of their former wives. Naturally, it is hard for those relatives to welcome another mouth to feed.

Meanwhile, the husbands ask defecting wives for money on account of their children. A survey conducted by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights has revealed that around half of all North Korean defectors residing in South Korea send money to family in the North. Cases of a defector raising her own child are few and far between.

Kim Sun Hee, who is 34, said, “My husband in the North married another woman and sent our 7-year old to my mother. Whenever he needs money, he has her talk to me, and listening to my daughter’s voice breaks my heart.” She added, “I feel sorry for my young daughter. I am hurt and I feel remorse when I think of how much she suffers, having to go from place to place because of money. My current feelings are such that I would like to bring my daughter here, even if that meant having to go to the North to kidnap her.”

Choi, who defected in 2009, said, “I have a 11-year old daughter back home. I send all the money I earn here over to the North. I have a sense of remorse for my children, so I have no qualms about sending them the money.”

That said, Choi’s husband in the North currently lives with another woman, too, so it is uncertain whether the money she sends actually goes to her daughter. However, she continues to send the money because there is no other choice. The majority of North Korean women in South Korea are in a similar predicament.

(2011-5-5) According to Yonhap the number of North Koreans entering the US has increased:

Despite persistent tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, the number of North Koreans that visited the United States in the past six months has more than doubled from the same period last year, a media report said.

RFA reported on April 29 that the number of North Korean passport holders who visited the U.S. between March and October of last year stood at 129, compared to 59 from the same period last year.

The report, which cited data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reported that most of them traveled to the U.S. on either B1 or B2 tour visas or G3 visas, which are given to government agency officials.

The increase in travel apparently attests to what seems to be a subtle increase in Washington-Pyongyang diplomacy in the wake of international efforts to revive the dormant six-way nuclear talks.

Between March and April a delegation of North Korean economic officials toured parts of the U.S. at the invitation of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego.

It is rare for North Korean officials to visit the U.S. The North and the U.S. fought in the 1950-53 Korean War and have no diplomatic relations. The two sides have also been at odds over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs and a series of provocations.


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