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View more articles by Shaquille James
Shaquille James is graduate of Georgetown University and Co-Founder of the North Korea Network.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) publishes yearly statistics on the provinces of origin of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea.
According to the figures, as of the year 2016, over 75% (23,138) of all North Korean defectors hailed from just two provinces: North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, with the former accounting for over 60% (18,665) of all defections.
This may not come as a large surprise, given that both provinces straddle the border with China, but 75% is still a significant portion given that the DPRK has nine other provinces.
In addition to this, there are yet other factors to consider: North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces straddle only the northeastern portion of North Korea’s border with China. Jagang and North Pyongan provinces straddle the remaining, southwestern portion of the border.
Oddly enough, when added together, North Pyongan and Jagang provinces account for only 3.3% (1018) of North Korean defectors (as compared to 75% from North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces).
In addition to this, North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces account for only 3 million of North Korea’s population of 25 million, while North Pyongan and Jagang provinces account for 4 million.
In other words, the southwestern provinces account for a greater population of North Koreans in general, but only about 3% of defections – while the northeastern provinces account for fewer North Koreans, but many times more defections.
North Hamgyong Province alone accounts for over 60% (18,665) of all defections
LAY OF THE LAND
While there are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, perhaps one of the simplest relates to geography. While both sections straddle the Chinese border and are, as a result, exposed to overflows of Chinese/foreign sounds, culture, ideas, and lights, one section presents a considerably more formidable land obstacle.
North Pyongan and Jagang provinces straddle the Yalu river portion of the border. The Yalu is wider, deeper, stronger, and is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed.
On the other hand, North Hamgyong and part of Ryanggang province sit on the Tumen river, which is, by comparison, more narrow, shallow, and calmer than the Yalu – making it easier to cross.
In addition to this, the area along the Chinese side of the Tumen river is part of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, which has a large ethnic Korean population. In addition to being easier to access, this side of the border is, likely, culturally more approachable for defectors as well.
There is another, more chilling, factor. When comparing a map of North Korea’s provinces with the locations of known North Korean Kwalliso or political prison camps (both still active and recently closed), one finds that half of the reported camps – camps 16, 22, and 25, near Hwasong, Hoeryong, and Chongjin, respectively – are located in North Hamgyong province – again, the region of origin for more than 60% of all defectors. This may not be a coincidence.
The numbers discrepancy notwithstanding, it is fair to say that nearly 80% of all North Korean defectors hail from the provinces bordering China, though the vast majority of them hail from a specific, northeastern portion of the border.
This means that the rest of North Korea’s population of 25.37 million is only accounted for by roughly 22% of defectors who make it to South Korea.
The Yalu is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed
The numbers, however, still produce some surprises. Following the “close to the border” logic, it would be expected for the number of defectors to fall in the more southern provinces of North Korea, due to being farther from the border. While this is partially true, it is not entirely true.
A good counterexample for this theory comes from North and South Pyongan provinces and South Hamgyong province.
Despite sitting on the border with China, North Pyongan province produced fewer defectors (811) than South Pyongan province (1021). South Pyongan does have a larger population than North Pyongan (4 million compared to 2.7 million), so this may account for some of the difference.
THE KWALLISO FACTOR
But when once again accounting for the locations of known Kwalliso, one again finds that South Pyongan province hosts another two political prisoner camps – camps 14 and 18, known as Gaechon and Bukchang, respectively.
The final camp – camp 15, known as Yodok – is located to the east of the border area with South Hamgyong province, though the camp itself is technically located in South Hamgyong province proper. South Hamgyong province, though it has a smaller population than South Pyongan province, actually produced more than double the defectors (2677).
Thus, there are at least two examples which undermine the “close to the border” argument: South Pyongan and South Hamgyong provinces produced more than triple the number of defectors than Jagang and North Pyongan provinces, despite the fact that those provinces are on the border with China.
In addition to this, these examples also call the population explanation into question, as some provinces with smaller populations produced more defectors than nearby provinces with higher populations.
There is evidence to suggest that the presence of political prison camps may have some sort of influence on the number of defections – provinces more to the south that have more defections than some provinces in the north also happen to host prison camps within their borders, and other northern provinces with smaller defection rates happen to have no political prison camps at all.
Nearly 80% of all North Korean defectors hail from the provinces bordering China
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
Pyongyang itself also produces a number of surprises. While Pyongyang is one of the smaller administrative regions of North Korea, it accounts for the second largest population (3.2 million), second only to South Pyongan province (4 million).
Despite its location and reputation as a city for the elite class, Pyongyang actually produced more defectors (695) than a number of other North Korean provinces, and more than triple that of Jagang province, which sits on the border with China (207).
While sheer population may account for this difference, one might expect the elite and loyal classes of the Pyongyang citizenry to be more willing to remain in the country. That being said, defector statistics for Pyongyang include a feature only found in a small handful of provinces: a majority of defectors from the capital (56%) were male, not female.
Overall, over 70% of all defectors are women. The most common explanation for this suggests that, because women are normally the “breadwinners” of North Korean society, women are more likely to leave the country in search of economic relief. In other words, most defections may be for economic reasons.
In the case of Pyongyang, where most or all families are elite and economically affluent, there would be less economic rationale for women to leave – and this may explain why more men originate from Pyongyang than women. In fact, while economic survival may be the key motive for many defections, in Pyongyang, reasons to defect are likely very different from the rest of the country.
In Pyongyang, reasons to defect are likely very different from the rest of the country
It is quite telling that over 75% of all defectors originated from just two northeastern provinces, and that another 12% originated from the only two other provinces with political prison camps.
Altogether, this means that almost 90% of all defectors come from just four North Korean provinces, and these provinces account for only 40% (10 million of 25 million) of North Korea’s population in total.
That being said, it is also interesting that two provinces along the border produce far fewer defectors compared to the two provinces to their immediate south, and that Pyongyang city alone accounts for far more defections than one of these border provinces.
Nevertheless, it is important to take note of some caveats with this data: the most important of which is the fact that this data only accounts for defectors who have resettled in South Korea, and does not account for the much larger number of North Koreans currently hiding in China.
It does beg the question, however, of how the statistics of North Koreans in China compare.
Edited by Oliver Hotham