SEOUL, South Korea – The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has surged in recent years because of economic suffering in the North, with more than 10,000 defections over the past three years, South Korea's government said Monday.
About as many North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of 2007 as the number who had fled over the entire previous period since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, the Unification Ministry said in a statement. The overall total stands now at 20,050.
Ministry official Han Dong-ki said the rise in defections reflects North Korea's worsening economy.
North Korea has relied on outside food aid since natural disasters and mismanagement wrecked its economy in the mid-1990s, when an estimated 2 million people died of famine. The North's economic troubles are thought to have worsened following a botched attempt at currency reform last year.
Most defectors reach South Korea after crossing over a shared border with China, where activists say tens of thousands of North Koreans are hiding. About 2,500 defectors arrived in the South in 2007, and the number has risen each year since. More than 2,900 defected last year, the ministry statement said.
Many North Korean defectors have trouble adjusting to their new lives in the South, which is one of Asia's richest countries. They report job discrimination and difficulty finding work, and say they aren't being paid fairly or getting promotions.
South Korea runs resettlement centers where North Korean asylum-seekers take a three-month course that teaches them computer skills and such everyday lessons as how to use ATMs and shop in supermarkets. South Korean intelligence officials typically question defectors for about three months before they are sent to the centers.
The two Koreas share a common language, but there are often differences in word meanings after more than a half-century of division following the war. The South is also awash in Western influences compared to the isolated North.
The Unification Ministry said it is working to help defectors resettle in the South more smoothly, offering greater tax reduction and medical benefits.
Defectors are a point of friction between North and South Korea. Two North Korean army majors were sentenced to prison in South Korea earlier this year for plotting to assassinate a high-profile defector. The defector later died of heart failure, and police said there was no connection between his death and the plot.
North Korea denies involvement, accusing South Korea of staging the arrests to stoke public anger against the North.
The defector, Hwang Jang-yop, was one of the North's most powerful officials when he fled in 1997. He was chief architect of North Korea's guiding "juche" philosophy of self-reliance and had tutored North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, on the ideology.