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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean defectors are increasingly fleeing to the South for non-economic reasons, such as a discontent with the regime, a desire for personal freedom and increasing censorship, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MoU) has said.
The MoU report, which was provided to local media in late August, studied trends in recent defections based on a survey of 859 defectors at Hanawon centers, responsible for handling defector arrivals after screening by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), from 2015 to the first half of 2016.
Economic difficulty and hunger were cited as the first and main cause of defection before 2013, but a desire for freedom ranked top in the reasons for defection after 2014.
Another notable factor is a change in the rate of ‘perception on the social classes’. 66.8 percent of 530 respondents who fled the North after 2014 replied they belonged to upper or middle class, with around 30 percent considered them as lower class.
In contrast, only 23.5 percent of respondents escaping the North before 2001 answered they were upper or middle class and more than 70 percent identified as lower class.
In terms of perception of income level, 55.9 percent of 526 defectors after 2014 replied their income is “average or enough”, in contrast to only 19 percent before 2001.
The MoU described the change in the trend as an increase in “emigration-style defection” and people fleeing the North to enhance their quality of life.
“We judge that the defection caused by hardships of life declined as the financial difficulties was somewhat alleviated and market economy ‘Jangmadang’ expanded after Kim Jong Un took his office,” the report argued.
“The North Korean people could realize the reality as they increased the contact with the outside including culture and information related to the South, and this also affected (the defection),” it added.
The MoU on Wednesday additionally told NK News there are 894 (provisional) defectors from January to August this year – an increase of 15 percent from last year.
POINTS OF DISCUSSION
South Korean observers based in South Korea said the MoU report reflected changing trends in recent defections. One expert said the increased number of the middle classes seen to be leaving the country could be due to a recent state crackdown on defection.
“The North Korea has a moribund economic structure basically, so I think lower classes still want to escape the North unless its economic situation rapidly gets better,” Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies told NK News.
“Therefore, the rising cost of the defection largely affect the changing trend in the defection,” Go said. “Only rich people can run away… there are many people in different classes hoping to defect to the South, but they can’t due to an increase in expense.”
The subjectivity problem also should be considered as the survey was based upon people’s ‘perception’ with no absolute standard.
“There is no absolute definition (for middle classes),” Kang Dong-wan of Dong-a University, who also works as chief of Busan Hana Center, the institute that helps the North Korean defectors in Busan.
“South Koreans have their own standard for defining middle classes such as regular income and holding amounts of cash. However there is no such an indicator in the North,” Kang told NK News.
“Defectors tend to say they were middle classes if they had enough to live on and didn’t have any economic difficulty in bringing up their children,” Kang added.
Go pointed out that the changes in gender ratio among defectors could support the MoU’s claim to have overcome the subjectivity problems in the research.
“More than 70 percent of defectors are women because they were the victim of human trafficking (in China–North Korea borders),” Go said.
In the past, some of the North Korean female defectors were trafficking victims, particularly in China, due to their poverty before arriving at the South.
“If mid-income earners fled to the South, the proportion of men should grow,” Go added.
According to the MoU statistics, 80 percent (provisional) of defectors, fled from January to June in 2016, are women. 80 percent (provisional) of defectors were women in 2015, as were 78 percent of defectors in 2014.
Go underscored, however, that no change of gender ratio didn’t necessarily indicate the MoU’s report was inaccurate.