South Korea’s Ministry of Unification publishes yearly statistics on the provinces of origin of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea. According to the figures, as of the year 2016, over 75% (23,138) of all North Korean defectors hailed from just two provinces: North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, with the former accounting for over 60% of all defections.
Even given that both provinces straddle the border with China, 75% is still a significant portion given that the DPRK has nine other provinces. Two other provinces which also straddle the border, and which are actually larger in population, Jagang and North Pyongan … only account for 3.3% of North Korean defectors.
While there are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, perhaps one of the simplest relates to geography. While both sections straddle the Chinese border and are, as a result, exposed to an overflow of Chinese/foreign sounds, culture, ideas, and lights, one section presents a considerably more formidable land obstacle.
North Pyongan and Jagang provinces straddle the Yalu river portion of the border. The Yalu is wider, deeper, stronger, and is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed.
On the other hand, North Hamgyong and part of Ryanggang province sit on the Tumen river, which is, by comparison, more narrow, shallow, and calmer than the Yalu – making it easier to cross. In addition, the area along the Chinese side of the Tumen river … has a large ethnic Korean population. In addition to being easier to access, this side of the border is, likely, culturally more approachable for defectors as well.
Despite its location and reputation as a city for the elite class, Pyongyang itself also produced more defectors (695) than a number of other North Korean provinces, and more than triple that of Jagang province, which sits on the border with China.
Altogether, almost 90% of all defectors come from just four North Korean provinces, and these provinces account for only 40% (10 million of 25 million) of North Korea’s population in total.
[Source: Shaquille James, Co-Founder of the North Korea Network]