More than 1,000 North Koreans defect every year. It's dangerous but here's how they do it
A North Korean soldier was shot at least five times as he made a dramatic escape across the border to South Korea on Monday – just the latest in a steady stream of defectors fleeing the North.
The soldier drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle towards the border through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), according to South Korean officials, but when it got stuck, he made a run for the border. His fellow North Korean soldiers fired some 40 rounds at him, wounding the man, who took cover behind a building. U.S. and South Korean forces rescued him and he was flown by helicopter to a South Korean hospital, where he remains in critical condition.
This soldier, whose motivation for fleeing isn’t yet known, is one of about 31,000 North Koreans who have defected from their country since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Here’s a look at who they are and how they leave.
How many people defect?
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification – which manages defectors who arrive in South Korea – about 31,000 North Korean defectors have fled to the South.
They’re mostly living in the capital city of Seoul and the surrounding region of Gyeonggi.
The vast majority of defectors, about 71 per cent, are women, and most are in their 20s and 30s. Most of them have a high school education.
Until fairly recently, very few defectors fled the North to come live in the South. The number picked up in the early 2000s, peaking in 2009 when nearly 3,000 people defected.Click here to view data »
The number began to drop significantly in 2012 – right at the time Kim Jong Un took over the presidency from his father, Kim Jong Il. However, the number of defectors remains relatively high, compared with the 1990s and earlier – 1,418 people defected in 2016.
How do they get to South Korea?
The North Korean soldier who defected Monday picked quite possibly the most dangerous place to make his escape. Very few people cross the DMZ, which lies in between North Korea and South Korea. It is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Not only that, he crossed at the village of Panmunjom, where there are lots of tourists on both sides, many lookout and military posts, and is a site for meetings between the two sides.
Most defectors opt for a safer route, crossing the northern border into China instead.
North Korean defector Ellie Cha described her family’s escape in a recent interview with Global News. She followed the more usual route – from North Korea into China, then south into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand – where they received permission to go to South Korea.
Since so many people come through China, the United Nations says it’s difficult to estimate how many North Koreans are living clandestinely there, rather than going to South Korea. It’s dangerous to stay though – Chinese authorities often return defectors to North Korea.
WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha describes the moment she realized that Vietnamese authorities were sending her family back to China.
Many defectors, including Cha’s family, pay human smugglers to help bring them through China.
Where do they come from?
Likely because it’s so much easier to leave North Korea through the northern Chinese border rather than the South Korean one, most defectors come from regions which border China.
More than half of the people who have arrived in South Korea came from the region of North Hamgyong.
What happens if they’re caught?
According to a United Nations report, illegally leaving North Korea is considered a serious offence under the Criminal Code. People who illegally cross the border are often considered to have committed treason by defection – punishable by a minimum of five years of “reform through labour.”
The United Nations also believes that people who are caught fleeing North Korea are subject to torture, inhumane treatment and imprisonment. The UN has also heard some reports of executions.
– With files from Reuters, AFP and AP