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S. Korea may see rise in NK defectors as Pyongyang mulls reopening borders

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People watch the North Korean side as they visit to celebrate the New Year at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with North Korea, Jan. 1, 2022. AP-Yonhap
People watch the North Korean side as they visit to celebrate the New Year at Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with North Korea, Jan. 1, 2022. AP-Yonhap

By Lee Hyo-jin

South Korea could experience a significant increase in defectors from North Korea in the coming months, according to analysts, as the reclusive regime is considering whether to reopen its borders following three years of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which might pave the way for more defections.

Given North Korea's critical food crisis, diplomats and high-ranking officials who were abroad for overseas assignments prior to the pandemic may attempt to seek refuge in South Korea instead of returning home, the experts viewed.

Rep. Tae Yong-ho of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), who served as North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting to South Korea in 2016, said on Thursday that there are growing signs of North Korean diplomats looking to defect to the South.

"There have been rumors circulating among North Korean overseas missions that due to the pandemic, some families have been separated, with husbands in Pyongyang and wives and children abroad, creating a North Korean version of 'separated families,'" the defector-turned-lawmaker wrote on Facebook.

He also claimed that some diplomats who served in Europe and South Asian nations during the pandemic have gone "penniless" after becoming stranded in Beijing as the Kim Jong-un regime kept its borders shut, blocking their return.

"Our government must take special attention to ensure the safe defection and travel of North Korean residents to the South, the number of which are set to increase in the foreseeable future. This would include diplomatic negotiations with countries where they are staying, as well as the active engagement with overseas intelligence networks," he said.

A recent incident brought the matter into focus when two family members of a North Korean official surnamed Park living in Vladivostok, Russia, were reported missing earlier this week in what is viewed as an attempted defection. Russian authorities have issued missing persons alerts for Kim Kum-sun, 43, and her 15-year-old son Park Kwon-ju.

According to Radio Free Asia, the older Park is a trade representative who was dispatched to earn foreign currency for the North Korean government by owning two restaurants in the Russian Far Eastern city. However, his wife Kim became the restaurants' acting manager on behalf of her husband after he was summoned to Pyongyang in 2019.

South Korea's unification ministry, foreign ministry and National Intelligence Service have yet to share any information regarding the missing family.

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said Kim and Park may have contacted the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok seeking to defect to Seoul.

The professor expected South Korea to see a growing number of North Korean defectors in the coming months, not only from Pyongyang but also from China and Russia, as the North Korean government slowly prepares to reopen its borders.

"We may see the number (of defectors) return gradually to pre-pandemic levels," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp decline in the number of North Korean defectors to South Korea due to strict border controls. The number, which was tallied at around 1,000 in 2019, dipped to 229 in 2020, 63 in 2021 and 67 last year.

"The ongoing food crisis, though it wouldn't be as severe as the Arduous March in the 1990s, may prompt defections of a lot of North Koreans, including diplomats and overseas workers," Park said.

Lee Hyo-jin


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