Escape From North Korea: China Border Controls Make It Harder For Defectors Fleeing Kim Jong Un

As China tightens its border controls, the number of North Koreans escaping to the south has fallen sharply. Statistics compiled by Seoul’s Unification Ministry show that the number of North Koreans entering South Korea has decreased by a fifth (20.8 percent) in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period last year.

According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean think-tank, the North has reinforced its border over the last two years, adding more electric fencing along the 300-mile-long Tumen River that separates Korea from China and Russia, the Japan Times reported. 

Almost all North Korean defectors head to China before making their way to South Korea to avoid the heavily militarised border separating the two Koreas.

Since the nation was divided following the Korean War in 1953, just 30,805 North Koreans have managed to escape to South Korea. The famine in the 1990s—where between 600,000 and 3.5 million people died—kickstarted the largest exodus from North Korea.

Arrivals of North Koreans in Seoul peaked in 2009, but the number of people arriving has significantly dropped in the last three years. The gender balance, however, remains the same: 85 percent of all defectors are women since men are notified as missing by their work units more quickly.

Some experts say the drop in numbers is the result of a more efficient propaganda machine implemented by Kim Jong Un. In addition, although many in North Korea go hungry, the risk of starvation isn’t as acute as it once was, so there is less immediate pressure to flee.

Practically, it’s now more expensive to cross the border. The amount of money needed to bribe a border guard has also increased. In 2008, as little as $50 was enough. Today, defectors need between $3000 and $6000 to convince a guard to let them escape.