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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The number of North Koreans escaping to South Korea in a single calendar year has dropped to the lowest point since 2001, according to new figures through the end of 2019 released by the South’s Ministry of Unification (MOU).
This follows a downward trend over the last decade coinciding with current DPRK leader Kim Jong Un coming to power in late 2011.
And while women continue to makeup the majority of the North Korean escapees, 2019 also marked the first uptick in reported male defections since 2016.
In total, the MOU’s latest figures state that 1,047 North Koreans newly registered their arrivals in the South in 2019 — compared with 1,137 in 2018 and 1,127 in 2017.
This represents the lowest number of total escapees in a single year since before 2002, when there were only 1,043 recorded new arrivals between 1999 and 2001.
The highest recorded number from the MOU in recent decades was 2,914 in 2009, dropping to just 1,502 by 2012 and then continuing to fall steadily in the years since.
There had been speculation that, given the dropping numbers in recent years, 2019 could mark the first year that fewer than 1,000 defections would be reported since the 947 recorded in 1998, which appears to have included previous years’ numbers as well.
The total number of defectors to have arrived in the South now stands at 33,523, the MOU data says, having passed the 30,000 mark in November 2016.
Of the 1,047 defectors settling in the South in 2019, 845 were women and 202 were men, compared with 969 female and 168 male defectors in 2018, and 939 female and 188 male defectors in 2017.
The percentage of female defectors reached a high point of 85.2% in 2018, but dropped last year to 80.7% — the lowest point since 2016.
By comparison, only around 12% of the 947 total defectors recorded up to 1998 were female, before the ratio rose each year from 55% in 2002 to 78% in 2008. Women now make up 72.1% of the total since 1998.
The numbers reflect only those North Koreans who choose to and are able to reach South Korea within a calendar year, and does not reflect the year in which they initially left the DPRK.
Almost all defectors come through the northern border with China instead of through the inter-Korean border, with large numbers of North Koreans known to settle in the Northeast China region — some by choice but many as victims of criminal organizations.
South Korean government and societal treatment of North Korean defectors settled in the country was in the spotlight in 2019, after a 42-year-old woman and her six-year-old son were discovered dead in their home in July, two months after their deaths.
The country’s Yonhap News Agency on Monday reported on another similar case, with details emerging in recent days of a 62-year-old who escaped North Korea in 2008 found dead in their home in Daegu after years of living alone without proper support.
Edited by Oliver Hotham