Fewer than 100 North Koreans a month defected to the South last year, the lowest for 15 years as Pyongyang and Beijing both tighten controls on movement. A total of 1,127 North Koreans came to the South last year, down 21 per cent from 2016, according to data from the unification ministry. It was the lowest figure since 2001.
The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.
Defections across the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula are very rare, but this year there have been four.
Pyongyang has been bolstering border controls since the second half of 2015, putting up more guards and setting up high-tension wires to prevent its citizens from fleeing to its giant neighbor.
“On top of that, China has drastically strengthened crackdowns on North Korean escapees, repatriating them recklessly whenever they find them”, Seo Jae-Pyong, an official of the Association of North Korean Defectors, told AFP.
The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.
Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.
His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.
“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.
Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.
“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”
A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Thursday through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating the two countries, leading to gunfire on both sides of the border, the South Korean military said.
The “low ranking” soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled through thick fog, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The escape follows a similar one last month, in which another North Korean soldier was shot by his colleagues as he successfully fled his DMZ posting. In that case, South Korean border guards who heard the gunshots found the soldier 55 yards from the border line that bisects Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Joint Security Area, and carried him to safety.
Officials said the soldier who fled Thursday was not fired upon. South Korean soldiers later fired 20 warning shots at North Korean border guards who were searching for the defector, which was followed 40 minutes later by gunfire in the North, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
It is extremely rare for people to flee across the demilitarized zone. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.
In a possible sign of worsening conditions in the North, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 15 North Koreans, including the four soldiers, had fled directly to South Korea this year, compared with five people, including one soldier, last year. Most defectors avoid such a perilous crossing to the South, instead fleeing through China.
[New York Times]
Strained relations between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US missile defense system have made it “more difficult” for North Korean refugees or defectors to pass through China before reaching South Korea, a former US special envoy said.
Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Beijing at times has allowed North Korean refugees to travel into the South via China when the Chinese capital has maintained good relations with Seoul. But after South Korea decided to install an American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year, triggering a year-long diplomatic stand-off between Seoul and Beijing, North Korean refugees could hardly pass through China, King said.
King’s comments coincide with the beginning of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s official visit to China and his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two neighboring countries agreed to resume relations last month after tensions flared over THAAD.
“I am hopeful that the recent indications of better ties between Beijing and Seoul will lead to easier conditions for defectors to pass through China,” King said in his testimony to the foreign affairs panel. “Virtually all” North Korean refugees flee the North through China, the ex-special envoy said.
The number of refugees leaving the North annually has declined recently owing to tighter border control by Pyongyang, King said. After peaking at nearly 3,000 in 2011, the number fell to fewer than 1,500 in 2016. “Numbers thus far this year look to be even lower,” he said.
[South China Morning Post]
China has started construction on a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile border with North Korea, quietly preparing for the mass exodus of refugees that the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime could potentially cause.
Detailed plans for the camps, intended to house thousands of migrants who might flee a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, emerged after internal documents from a state-run telecom giant went viral on the Chinese social media site Weibo. The telecom company appeared to be tasked with providing the camps with internet services, and the document stated that camps were planned in three villages in Changbai County and two cities in the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border, on state-owned land.
The document, which Newsweek could not independently verify, said: “Due to cross-border tensions…the [Communist] party committee and government of Changbai County has proposed setting up five refugee camps in the county.”
In addition, The New York Times reported that centers for refugees were also planned in the cities of Tumen and Hunchun, citing a local businessman, who remained anonymous.
The secret construction of the camps reflects growing concern in China about the potential for political instability—or even regime collapse—in North Korea.
About 70% of the more than 31,000 defectors who have made it to South Korea since the end of the Korean War are women, according to the government’s Ministry of Unification. That figure has climbed in recent years, reaching about 80% from 2014-2016, and 85% this year.
Accurate information from North Korea is difficult to obtain to understand why women defect in higher numbers, but experts point to several factors:
-One key reason is a strong demand for North Korean women in neighboring China as arranged brides in a country where men outnumber women by more than 33 million, and for the sex industry.
-Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps rescue North Korean refugees hiding in China, said North Korean women also may have a better chance of staying under the radar and working informally in China in restaurants and factories.
-Women also have a significantly lower social status than men in North Korea, which allows them to remain further out of sight from authorities, said Heather Barr, a senior researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
-Women are key movers of an informal market that sprang up after the near collapse of North Korea’s economy in the 1990s. Barr said this gives women greater access to the networks of brokers who can arrange passage to China.
-Also motivating some women to escape has been access to information about the world outside North Korea. Many popular South Korean programs that make their way into North Korea are known as K-dramas — glamorous soap operas targeted to female audiences.
Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.
So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.
Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.
But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.
Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more
Ellie Cha’s family paid Chinese brokers to smuggle them across the North Korean border, one by one. Cha was reunited with her father and 12-year-old brother in China, but their ride wasn’t waiting for them when they arrived. So, Cha’s first night of freedom was spent outdoors, on the side of a mountain. After two days of cold rain on the mountain, their Chinese contact arrived and took the family to meet their mother, then they spent six days driving south through China by bus, eventually reaching Vietnam.
“During that time it was very scary for us, because we knew that if we were caught by Chinese authorities, they would send us to North Korea,” she said. “And strong punishment would await us in North Korea.”
They intended to go to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, but were arrested by the Vietnamese police before they could get there. They spent three weeks in Vietnamese jail cells. After much confusion, they were sent back to the Chinese border. Cha was afraid.
They were eventually released back into China, and so they tried again. They went through this five times before trying a different route through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where they finally ended up in a refugee camp and were able to contact the South Korean authorities.
Cha believes Canadians and Westerners confuse North Korea’s public face – its robotic propaganda and seemingly fanatical devotion to Kim Jong Un — with the North Korean people. “Please remember the people’s lives, people still living under the repressive society.”
Four North Korean defectors have told VOA in video messages intended for U.S. President Donald Trump what they want him to do and say during his visit to South Korea. The messages were delivered ahead of Trump’s departure Friday morning for a 12-day, five-nation tour which is expected to focus on tensions over North Korea’s its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“If [Trump’s] coming to strengthen Korea-U.S. relations, he’s welcome, but if he’s coming to foment a war between the two Koreas, I cannot welcome him,” said Kim Young Soo, a defector and former soldier who arrived in South Korea in 2006. “As a head of state, I think he could be more discreet when talking about a war.”
The defectors want Trump to persuade China, Pyongyang’s only remaining ally, to stop repatriating North Koreans who take refuge there. “While seeking freedom, they are put at risk of being captured by Chinese authorities and being forcibly returned to North Korea,” said Ji Seong-ho, a defector. “They may even face death. So I sincerely would like to ask President Trump to urge China’s Xi Jinping to stop repatriation of North Koreans so that they can attain their dreams of freedom.”
And they want him to keep up the pressure on North Korea with sanctions. “It’ll take an insurgency against the regime to bring about a revolution,” said Ri Sun Kyong, who arrived to South Korea in 2002. “Every single country in the world should … increase pressure so an insurgency takes place.”