According to an article from today’s Daily NK (a website run by North Korean defectors living in the South), a recent tightening of border controls by North Korea, together with a crackdown by Chinese authorities on North Korean refugees in China, is causing more people to flee the North by ship.
So far this year, 73 North Korean refugees have arrived in the South by ship, compared to nine people in 2010 and 11 in 2009. The instances of arrivals by sea have also increased, with six cases so far this year, compared to five in 2010 and one in 2009. The number of passengers per boat has also risen, from 2-3 per boat last year to upwards of 20-30 per boat this year.
The story quotes a source inside the North as saying would-be defectors can choose between risking death at sea, or getting caught by North Korean border guards and/or Chinese authorities. Heightened border and internal security measures by North Korea and China have led an increasing number of defectors to risk the sea route. Unfortunately, finding a ship captain willing to take a family to the South (and thus agree to defect with his/her own family, or risk death upon return) is reportedly much more difficult and expensive than finding a people smuggler to get into China, crackdown or not. Thus, a wave of “boat people” escaping the North is, according to the story, highly unlikely.
UPDATE (28 November): Looks like the North Korean government is so concerned about this year’s increase in defections by boat to South Korea that it has pulled patrol craft off of duties near the Northern Limit Line (NLL – disputed sea border between NK and SK, site of numerous deadly naval clashes) to bolster coastal patrols. The purpose of the new patrols, according to an article in today’s JoongAng Daily (and another in The Korea Herald), is to increase monitoring along the North’s southwest coast to prevent defections by boat through the Yellow Sea. No word on measures to reduce defections along the east coast.