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.