Sharp increase in North Korean defections to South in 2023, reflects rising dissatisfaction

The easing of border closures that were initially implemented by North Korea in 2020 contributed to the surge, particularly encouraging students, women, and even diplomats to embark on the perilous journey to South Korea.

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea tripled last year, reaching 196 individuals, after the easing of border closures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While still below pre-pandemic averages, South Korean authorities noted that the backgrounds of many recent defectors indicated a rising dissatisfaction with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The easing of border closures that were initially implemented by North Korea in 2020 contributed to the surge, particularly encouraging students, women, and even diplomats to embark on the perilous journey to South Korea. The number of defectors had dramatically dropped after North Korea sealed its border with China in early 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus.

In 2021, only 63 people managed to reach South Korea, marking a more than 90% decrease from the 2019 figure of 1,047. However, last year’s notable increase to 196 defectors included 10 individuals from the North Korean “elite class,” the highest since 2017. Moreover, the majority of defectors were in their 20s and 30s, with women comprising around 80% of the total.

Since the 1950s, an estimated 31,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea. The majority cross into China and then seek refuge in the South via a third country. The number of defections peaked in 2009 but has seen a decline since Kim Jong-un tightened border controls after assuming leadership in late 2011. Last year’s defectors included 13 individuals who fled to the South by sea, all citing food shortages as a driving factor. The unification ministry in Seoul highlighted that the willingness of these defectors to risk their safety reflected worsening conditions in North Korea.

Notably, 10 of the recent defectors were diplomats, trade officials, and students attending universities overseas. This trend suggests that the North’s decision to scale back its overseas presence last year had spurred defections among officials not satisfied with their lives back home. Many officials, after experiencing life in freer countries, found it unacceptable to return to North Korea amid economic challenges and strengthened internal controls.

Defections by elite officials are considered a significant challenge for the North Korean regime, as they pose an embarrassment and potential source of insider information. The motivations for defection reported by last year’s cohort included the prospect of freedom in the democratic South and dissatisfaction with the North Korean regime, with 23% indicating disillusionment and just over 21% citing food shortages as their primary reason.