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(LEAD) Number of N.K. defectors up 15 pct on-year in first 8 months of this year

All News 14:13 September 07, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS remarks by gov't official at bottom)

SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- The number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea rose 15 percent on-year in the first eight months of 2016, government data showed Wednesday, as the North's leader is tightening his iron-fisted rule on the country.

In the January-August period, 894 North Koreans escaped and arrived in South Korea, compared with 777 the previous year, according to the data by the Ministry of Unification.

As of end-August, the total number of North Korean defectors reached 29,688 it showed, with the tally likely to surpass the 30,000 mark in the next few months.

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 population.

But this year, the pace has increased in an indication that more North Koreans, including elite members of society, are seeking to escape Kim's reign of terror.

The development has raised speculation in the South that conditions in the North may be becoming unstable and that the reason behind the defections is changing.

Official data showed that while only 19 percent of defectors who escaped before 2001 referred to themselves as having above average incomes when they lived in the North, this shot up to 55.9 percent after 2014.

"Compared with the past, the number of North Korean defectors seeking more opportunities and better lives for themselves in South Korea has increased," a government official said.

Seoul has said the North Korean government's strong pressuring of its overseas workers and diplomats to send more money to the North is one reason more people who are socially well off are defecting. Tougher international sanctions have cut off many of the regime's traditional sources of hard currency.

In April, a group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern city of Ningbo defected to South Korea en masse. In June, three more North Korean restaurant employees working in China escaped to Seoul. Most North Korean restaurant workers are chosen from families with good backgrounds who are trusted by Pyongyang.

In addition, Thae Yong-ho, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in Britain, recently defected to the South with his family, making him one of the highest ranking officials to flee to South Korea.

Seoul's unification ministry said that Thae defected due to his disillusionment with North Korea and aspiration for freedom and democracy. Concerns for a better future for his children were also factored into his decision, it added.

"The costs (that North Koreans have to bear) for defections have increased as the Kim Jong-un regime has intensified crackdowns on those who attempt to flee the nation," Jeong Joon-hee, ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing.


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