Only two North Korean defectors entered South Korea from April to June this year, the fewest ever in a single quarter, Seoul’s unification ministry announced on Friday.
Only one male and one female defector arrived in the country during the second quarter of 2021, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the lowest-ever quarterly figure since such data began to be recorded in 2003.
“It’s kind of unimaginable — it was already so low,” said Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). “It’s not that long ago that it was hundreds of people … that would make it in a single quarter.”
The South Korean government, as well as experts and activists, have indicated the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and stricter border controls as likely reasons for the sharp decline since 2020.
The annual number of defectors arriving in South Korea has trended downward over the last decade but had not dipped below 1,000. In 2020, however, only 229 defectors entered the country — a 78% drop from the previous year.
Data has suggested that the downward trend may continue in 2021.
From January to March this year, only 31 defectors — 17 male and 14 female — arrived in the country. The number entering Hanawon, South Korea’s defector resettlement facility, during the first half of the year also showed a sharp 85% decrease from the same period last year — from 380 to 57.
The ongoing pandemic and the decline in defector numbers have had adverse consequences for humanitarian work supporting North Korean defectors.
Missions to rescue North Korean refugees in China or other countries have faced significant adversity, said Ji-yoon Lee, program officer of the advocacy and campaign team at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR).
“We used to rescue around a hundred people annually, but last year, that dropped below five,” she said. “The route to safe countries like Thailand has been blocked as well.”
The decline in the number of North Korean escapees has also affected domestic operations helping those in the early settlement period in South Korea.
Lee’s organization used to provide educational services at Hanawon to young defectors. Social distancing measures have limited their entry into the center since last year, but there is also a lack of demand due to the small numbers of young defectors entering the center, according to Lee.
While maintaining its usual activities like rescue missions and assisting the early settlement of defectors, LiNK will be working on programs that can support broader defector groups as well, Park said.
“With Hanawon almost empty and there just being only a small number of people in the first 12 months in their life in South Korea — we will still work with those people — but ourselves and maybe other organizations as well are pivoting to … working with people who have been here for longer,” Park said. “That’s the broad general direction.”
“We will continue to try, even if it’s a smaller number, still try to bring as many people as we can,” Park said. “But given how difficult this year is, we have to expand into other areas and programs.”
LiNK recently launched English-language education programs, Park said, and also plans to start other programs designed for “the capacity building of young North Koreans” who have been in South Korea for some time.
The official number of defectors who have entered South Korea stands at 33,785 as of the end of the second quarter.
Lee of NKHR expressed concerns over the long-term impact of the pandemic on refugee rescues and other operations.
“If the situation lasts longer, then activists in China or Southeast Asia will face more challenges in continuing their work,” she said. “We may lose our connections there bit by bit, and that’s a big problem.”