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Number of NK defectors up 17.5 pct on-year in Q1

2016/04/12 11:58

SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- The number of North Korean defectors rose 17.5 percent on-year in the first quarter, government data showed Tuesday, as more people are seeking to flee North Korea amid their leader's iron-fist rule.

The number of those who escaped North Korea and arrived in South Korea reached 342 in the January-March period, up from 291 the previous year, according to the data by South Korea's unification ministry.

As of end-March, the number of North Koreans who defected to the South came in at more than 29,000 with some 1,280 people arriving in the South last year.

The number of defectors reaching the South peaked in 2009, but the pace of growth has slowed down since 2011 as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has strengthened border control and surveillance over the country's people.

The data followed the latest defections by 13 North Koreans who used to work at an overseas restaurant in China amid toughened international sanctions on Pyongyang over its recent nuclear and missile tests.

The number of male North Korean defectors reached 77 in the first quarter, up 54 percent from a year earlier. That of female North Koreans gained 10 percent on-year to 265 during the cited period.

An entry by North Korean men into South Korea has been on the falling trend mainly because it is relatively easier for the North's regime to scrutinize men at the workplace.

"The livelihood of North Koreans appears to be tough due to the regime's continuous mobilization of its people ahead of the North's key events such as last year's party anniversary and the upcoming party congress in May," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

The ministry handling inter-Korean affairs remained cautious about a possibility that the number of North Korean defectors would easily pass the mark of 30,000 in coming quarters.

"(The first-quarter data) could reflect a temporary rise. It is too early to judge (when it will top the mark)," a ministry official said.

North Korean defectors face harsh punishments and even execution after being repatriated from China, which does not recognize them as asylum seekers, according to human rights activists.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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