After years of efforts to halt the movement of North Koreans to South Korea it took covid19 and a near total lockdown of the Chinese border to reduce the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea to a record low of 229 in 2020. That was actually part of a trend. Only 1,047 North Koreans made to South Korea in 2019 and only 1,137 in 2018.
When Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 he was appalled that nearly 30,000 North Koreans had escaped to South Korea. He began issuing a list of new procedures and security measures that eventually succeeded. Despite some initial success, 2016 was a record year for the number of North Koreans getting to South Korea. That year 1,414 made it, which was 11 percent more than the 1,275 in 2015. That meant the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 reached 30,308. It was widely predicted that the 30,000 mark would be reached by the end of 2016 and it was. Since 2017 the number of arrivals has declined, mainly because it has become more dangerous for defectors in China.
Most of those who have gotten out of the north to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the North Korean government was forced to legalize after 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money, by North Korean standards, which enabled them to hire people smugglers, buy boats or bribe border guards. For a long time, most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape routes to South Korea for the growing number of North Korean escapees who could afford it. China had long been a dangerous and less prosperous place for illegal Korean migrants than South Korea because China periodically cooperated with North Korea to identify, arrest and send back North Koreans illegally in China. This was often a death sentence for those sent back.
During 2020 North Korea took extraordinary efforts to seal its borders with China and Russia. In late 2020 North Korea, in a desperate effort to halt smuggling across its Chinese and Russian borders, made arrangements with China and Russia to allow North Korean secret police capture teams in to hunt down Korean smugglers and the brokers they work for. The North Korean agents turned over anyone they caught to local police, to be held until the covid19 crisis was over and these prisoners could be transferred to North Korea for further interrogation and punishment. It is not known what North Korea has offered in return for this cooperation. North Korea has used these tactics several times previously in China. Russia accounts for less than five percent of the smuggling but North Korean leaders have become obsessed with curbing smuggling and information leaks. Many incoming smugglers were executed if they were thought to have the virus. North Korea sought to keep this quiet but the information broker network based in China found out. The information brokers have long operated a profitable business by reporting chatter, or verified details of what is going in in North Korea.
When North Korea became aware that the info brokers were still getting “secrets” out of North Korea, border security was increased to unprecedented levels. The prices and bribes smugglers and information brokers had to pay went way up. The information flow slowed down but did not stop. Chinese police provide some protection to China based brokers in return for free and unrestricted access to information coming out of North Korea. It is unclear if these cooperative brokers are protected from the new North Korea operation but they probably are. In China there are illegal and very illegal (as in forbidden) operations the police deal with. Brokers and smugglers willing to cooperate can survive because even China has a hard time keeping track of what is going on in North Korea.
This is not the first time North Korea has sent its agents into northeast China to identify and arrest North Koreans who had left the country illegally. That ongoing program was officially suspended when the covid19 quarantines went into effect in early 2020. North Korea closed its border almost completely and some North Korea agents in China were ordered to remain where they were. Even North Koreans outside the country on official business were banned from returning because North Korea was woefully unprepared to handle a covid19 epidemic.
Since 2014 China has eased up on its persecution of illegals from North Korea and in 2016 was openly allowing some of them to legally cross Chinese borders to reach South Korea via Southeast Asia. This trend so alarmed North Korea that Kim Jong Un began dismissing military personnel (including officers) if they had any family members who had defected. This was because it was suspected (but apparently unproven) that these soldiers might have heard from their defector kin about life in South Korea and passed that on. It was obvious to the government that a lot of news about North Korean defectors living (usually quite well) in South Korea was getting back to the north and the reason was the use of illegal cell phones and smugglers who got cash and sometimes thumb drives with video from the defectors or just South Korean movies and TV shows.
The defectors are considered an increasingly dangerous threat by the North Korean government, something that became obvious as more and more North Koreans reached the south where they could speak freely. Only about 500 North Koreans a year were reaching South Korea in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, after the economic collapse up north and a famine that killed 5-10 percent of the population, the number began to rapidly increase. By 2009 it was nearly 3,000 a year. When Kim Jong Un took over in late 2011 he cracked down hard on this illegal migration and reduced it to about 1,200 a year by 2015. There was another change, now most of the North Koreans arriving in South Korea are women. In the late 1990s less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. Since then, this has grown to the point where 80 percent of the arrivals are women. There are several reasons for this. Women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. That is now changing and women are getting equal, if not greater police and secret police scrutiny to identify potential “defectors”.