The number of North Korean defectors successfully completing escapes to South Korea has fallen by 12.7 percent in the first eight months of the year.
In a report, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said 780 people managed to reach safety in the South between January and August, but that figure was a significant decline on the same period one year previously as Pyongyang has stepped up its efforts to halt defections.
China has also increased security along its border with the North, Yonhap news reported, and is increasingly repatriating defectors who manage to get into China.
Rights groups believe that China detained at least 41 refugees in July and August and, despite requests from Seoul that they be permitted to travel on to South Korea, they are expected to be repatriated.
Human rights groups say that North Koreans who are sent back are invariably punished by imprisonment in labour camps or prisons for political offences, both of which “have long been documented to be facilities where torture, starvation and inadequate medical care are endemic”, according to the Human Rights Watch NGO.
Of those who were able to reach South Korea, nearly 57 percent were farmers or manual workers.
Significantly, the report adds, there has been an increase in the number of defectors from the relatively privileged classes in North Korean society, such as government officials.
There are also reports of families fleeing the reclusive republic for their children’s education. Analysts also believe that the number of people braving the landmines, tripwires and machine guns that are trained aross the Demilitarised Zone in a bid for freedom is indicative of growing despair in the North.
In June alone, no fewer than three North Korean solidiers negotiated the DMZ and handed themselves in to their South Korean counterparts. In the same month, seven civilians were rescued from rickety boats after making the crossing to the South.
Quoting a security official in Seoul, South Korean media said the surge in defections across the world’s most heavily fortified border is “unprecedented” and that the risks they are taking indicate growing levels of discontent – or desperation – within North Korea.