A new report by the Unification Ministry of South Korea shows that the number of North Korean defectors fleeing the oppressive regime to South Korea has decreased by 13%, a drastic fall from the usually high numbers reported since 2008. Consisting of mostly lower-class workers and farmers, South Korea has seen only 780 defectors from January to August. On average, South Korea reports between 2,400 and 2,900 defectors annually over the past decade and has seen more than 30,000 defectors since the truce between the two Koreas in 1953.
The decrease in defectors can be attributed to a few different factors, the main being an increase in surveillance and border security by both North Korea and China. The two countries have increased the barbed fencing and military forces along their borders, with Pyongyang going so far as to rotate their military stationed along the border almost biweekly to prevent soldiers from developing a relationship with locals. The estimated amount needed to bride a border guard has drastically increased as well, from $50 in 2008 to between $3,000 and $6,000 in 2015.
Additionally, despite the temperamental political climate surrounding Pyongyang, North Koreans are less motivated to defect. The past five years have seen a sharp increase in anti-South propaganda; the North Korean media consistently reports defectors facing extreme poverty, discrimination, depression, and a longing for North Korea. The defectors that return to North Korea are paraded around the country to recount the supposed horrors they faced in South Korea to the northerners, effectively destroying the idea of leaving.
While the stories the defectors bring back to North Korea are highly exaggerated, there is some truth to the difficulties defectors face in South Korea. After an extremely dangerous journey, defectors most often arrive in Seoul with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs and almost no applicable skills to speak of. North Korean doctors that defect find that they cannot practice medicine in South Korea because their medical education in the north consisted of old Russian medical studies. Even technicians cannot find work in their field because the machines they were trained to repair in North Korea were usually Russian equipment from the 1980s. Subsequently, North Korean defectors find themselves working lower-class, minimum wage jobs to make ends meet in a country unfamiliar to them. As a result, while the suicide rate in South Korea has been the highest in the world for the past eight years, the suicide rate among defectors is triple the South Korean rate. According to the Unification Ministry, 14% of defectors’ deaths were suicide.
Seoul has attempted to help its struggling defectors by providing vocational training and accurate education of world history and capitalism for three months after defectors arrive in the country, even providing them with resettlement and housing assistance once their three months are over. Yet, critics argue that South Korea is not doing enough for those who are suicidal; South Korea allocates close to $7 million in suicide programs, compared to Japan’s largely successful $130 million programs.
Young-Ha Kim, a South Korean writer who has written about the suicide issue in his book I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, believes that the key to lowering the incredibly high suicide rate among defectors and South Koreans overall is to de-stigmatize mental illnesses. He argues that South Koreans have an antiquated view on depression and do not believe that those with depression are really suffering, effectively cutting off those who may be suicidal. He believes that suicide counselling should be free for all, rather than just for the defectors during their three months of government-provided training.
Kim Jong-un’s anti-South Korea propaganda is extremely successful in decreasing the number of defectors because it twists and exaggerates one fundamental truth – life in South Korea continues to be incredibly difficult for North Koreans.