The number of North Koreans seeking refuge in South Korea has dropped significantly, with recent figures showing that just 1,396 defected in 2014. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of refugees leaving annually was between 2,400 and 2,900.
The vast majority of refugees in previous years were driven out by both economic hardship at home and the allure of wealth apparently to be found in the South.
But North Korea is now significantly less poor than it used to be. Although malnutrition is still common, death from starvation is no longer a daily threat even for the poorest citizens.
These changes reflect North Korea’s gradual move towards a market economy – a shift that has also had an effect on the size of the bribes required to pay border guards to ensure a safe trip.
In 2008, $50 (?33) would be enough to bribe a guard. These days between $3,000 and $6,000 is the standard border-crossing fee.
This steep increasemeans that only people with a lot of cash can afford to make the crossing. It suggests that “chain defections” are likely to continue – where a refugee makes it to Seoul and saves enough money to pay to bring another family member out.
But the improved economy alone cannot fully explain the dramatic drop in the number of new arrivals in Seoul. It’s also down to a change in government attitudes towards illegal migration.
Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un sees large-scale defections as a danger to the future of the regime.
He believes that the more North Koreans who leave the country the more porous the borders become, allowing more information about the outside world to flow back in.
In order to keep defections to a minimum, he has developed a set of new and sophisticated policies.
The government no longer relies on brute force and surveillance to patrol its borders, although policing measures do constitute an important component of the anti-defection policy.
In recent years, border security has been notably tightened. More fences have been erected on the North Korean side and a larger number of military personnel have been stationed in the area.
To prevent the military from developing close relations with the locals and possibly helping them escape, the authorities began to rotate officials more frequently.
The dropping defector numbers suggest these policies have been working.
At the same time, China has begun to take border security seriously by constructing extensive barbed wire fencing between the countries.
The fences have been fitted with CCTV cameras, allowing border guards to monitor breaches more closely.
Aside from policing and economic incentives, Kim Jong-un has also mounted an extensive propaganda campaign.
Until recently, the North Korean media remained silent about defection. Officially, these defectors did not exist, since no person could possibly want to run away from the “socialist paradise” in order to go to the “capitalist hell” down south.
However, under the rule of the new Kim, the North Korean media has started to report stories about the suffering of poor, naive refugees in the South. In these, refugees are not presented as enemies of the state, rather they are depicted as people whose ideological vigilance was weak, leaving them susceptible to the siren calls of southern propaganda.
The presentation of South Korean society has become more sophisticated, too. It is no longer portrayed as a place of destitution and despair.
Instead, North Korean media has implied that South Korea is a comparatively rich place, but it also makes clear that refugees are shut out of the affluence and prosperity seen in South Korean movies and TV shows.
They suggest refugees are left at the bottom of the social ladder, poor and facing widespread discrimination. There is a kernel of truth in this picture, though it is riddled with distortions and exaggerations.
The recent phenomenon of “double defectors” is interesting in this regard – describing people who first left for the South, and then chose to move back. Some might have been pressured into returning, but many are seemingly authentic refugees who could not get by in South Korea.
These returnees are given the full red-carpet treatment. They are announced on national TV and dispatched on countrywide lecture tours to regale the masses with the miseries of refugee life in the decadent and capitalist south. These first-hand warnings have become a particularly effective way of deterring North Koreansfrom making the move.
Another policy that the new government has introduced is the promotion of legitimate labour migration. The vast majority of refugees first move to China to earn money, and later decide to continue on to South Korea. By improving surveillance and controls of labour migration, the North Korean government has also reduced the pull for potential escapees.
This policy has instigated a dramatic increase in the number of North Korean workers sent overseas. Now, many able-bodied North Koreans, instead of considering an illegal escape to China, are devoting their efforts to getting selected for a work team bound for China, Russia or the Middle East – a more secure way to make money than an illegal crossing.
Kim Jong-un has also significantly relaxed the rules governing individual overseas travel, which was up until now almost impossible.
It’s now possible for a politically reliable North Korean to get a passport, a visa and travel to China. This is usually explained as being for family reunion purposes, but most travellers are not all that interested in their relatives in China. Rather, they want to earn money working the borderlands as a labourer.
From the government’s perspective, legal labour migration poses much less of a risk, and many suspect that the families left behind guarantee loyality to the DPRK. Families are often forced to pay the price for defectors, often facing long-term discrimination.
Like it or not, migration statistics confirm that Kim Jong-un’s policies are working. But although the number of defectors has declined, this does not mean that defection is likely to stop completely. Nonetheless, it seems that the North Korean government has scored an important victory in its long struggle to maintain control over its subjects.