The risks of defection are enormous. Family members left behind in North Korea face brutal recrimination, while defectors face repatriation by China.
All the same, the number of North Koreans ready to take the risks is rising fast. It took over half a century for the total of successful defectors to the South to reach 10,000. But in just the past three years, a further 10,000 have followed.
In Seoul the manager of one support group says that part of the reason for the increased numbers is the surprisingly easy access that North Koreans have to South Korean films and television programs. In recent years, illegally copied DVDs from China have flooded the country, enabling citizens of the world’s most repressive state to see how sumptuously their southern cousins live.
Because family members left behind are persecuted, whole-family defections are also becoming more common. Two-fifths of new arrivals come with at least one other member of the family, while relatives back in North Korea nervously wait for their chance to follow. More than two-thirds of defectors are women, who also happen to make up the major part of the North’s black economy, on which much of the population depends.