North Korean defector numbers plunge amid pandemic

SEOUL (AFP) – The number of North Koreans defecting to the South plummeted last year after Pyongyang closed its border in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said yesterday.

The figure has been on a steady decline for some time but slumped to just 229 last year, the ministry said, far below the 1,047 of 2019.

The vast majority of Northern defectors first travel to neighbouring China, sometimes staying there for years before making their way on to the South via third countries, and only a handful directly cross the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula.

But the North has a ramshackle health system that would struggle to cope with a major disease outbreak and imposed a strict border closure last January to try to protect itself from the virus that first emerged in China, its key ally.

The North has not confirmed a single case of COVID-19 – although experts have long said it is unlikely to have escaped the pandemic.