February 25, 2024

Why more North Koreans don’t defect across the inter-Korean border

Obstacles range from political risks to lack of awareness, but experts say Seoul can do more to help would-be escapees

For North Koreans compelled to leave their homeland, crossing the border into China has long been the most popular option. The rivers separating the two countries freeze over in winter, and border security has traditionally been thin, with guards on both sides willing to look the other way for the right price.

But this situation has changed in the last few years: Chinese and DPRK authorities have ramped up border security; introduced additional razor-wire fencing; and installed more CCTV, night vision and movement sensor posts. COVID-19 controls, including North Korea’s shoot-on-sight mandate and border area movement ban, have made it both more difficult and more dangerous to defect.