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Why North Korean Elites Defect from Their Country?

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The number of North Korean defectors has shown a marked increase in 2016, after a drop since Kim Jong-Un came to power. According to the Ministry of Unification of South Korea, North Korean defectors have numbered 815 from January to July of this year, which is a 15.6% increase from the same period last year. The figures suggest that more and more North Koreans flee to South Korea to escape the poverty and plight in their country, although Kim Jong-Un's regime that considers defection as a serious threat to its existence has strengthened crackdowns and punishment.

What is especially noteworthy is the changing patterns of defections. While many of the defectors were ordinary North Koreans who left the country to stay alive, members of the ruling elite are increasingly choosing to escape. In April this year, a group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers fled from China to South Korea. In July, three general-level officials and a diplomat, who were in charge of managing Kim's private funds in the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, asked for political asylum according to reports. It is also known that a North Korean teenager, a mathematics genius who was seeking for asylum at the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, defected to a third country in late August.

More recently, Tae Yeong-ho, a high-ranking diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London, defected to South Korea. Tae held the second highest position at the embassy, whose job was to defend and advocate the regime's ideology. He became the highest-ranking diplomat to defect to South Korea. Tae was also among the top elites in North Korean society. His wife, O Hye-seon, is reportedly a relative of O Baek-ryong, one of the partisan colleagues of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea.

Then, why did he decide to defect in spite of his privileged background? It was reported that he was 'sick and tired of the Kim Jong-Un regime, longed for a liberal and democratic country, and was worried about his children's future'. The defection of the senior diplomat will probably have no small impact on North Korean elites including diplomats abroad.

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North Korea operates by the cruel punishment system of guilt-by-association. The scope and severity of punishment of family members or relatives of political prisoners is subject to social ranks of the prisoners. When Hwang Jang-yeop, the former secretary of the ruling Workers' Party of North Korea, defected to South Korea in 1997, his wife, children and grandchildren were sent to political prison camps, and his first cousins once removed were expelled from their positions. Under the stringent guilt-by-association system, it is far from easy for North Korean elites to choose defection.

Nevertheless, the number of North Korean elite defectors is on the rise for presumably two reasons. First is their animosity towards Kim Jong-Un's reign of terror. His iron-fisted rule has taken control over the elite as demonstrated in the killing of over 130 senior officials of the Workers' Party during his four years in office. Watching Kim Jong-Un kill even his uncle Jang Seong-taek, the upper class has an increasing fear that their lives could be put at risk anytime. Besides, some analysis suggests that the sense of solidarity among the elite is being diluted.

One of the important features of the North Korean elite has been a strong sense of unity among themselves. Based on a close network and kinship, North Korean elites have propped up the three successive generations of the Kim family in power. They are spread across the Workers' Party, the military and the government of North Korea, and diplomats are among the top elites. The recent defection of Tae Yeong-ho would lead to disciplinary action in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to which Tae belonged, which would further weaken the cohesion among the elite and drive more to defect from the country.

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Second is the ever deteriorating relations of North Korea with the outer world. The United Nations' sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear development is pushing the country over the edge, making it harder for the regime to offer financial support for daily activities and duties of overseas North Koreans who are also among the elite. Inside the country, the elite are forced to offer more money to the authorities for reasons such as the 'Yeomyeong Street construction' and other immoderate projects and in show of loyalty to the leader. Kim Jong-Un is also requesting his people abroad to enhance diplomatic activities to improve his stature. North Koreans, who are enlightened by the happy and plentiful life they have experienced after spending a long time abroad, are seeking asylum as their country under international sanctions is tightening the screw on them.

According to North Korea sources, Kim Jong-Un recently dispatched security agents to overseas North Korean institutions and ordered them to bring officials home if their work performance is poor. Family members of North Korean diplomats and traders abroad were also ordered to return home, reports said. This is apparently aimed to prevent any further escape of key elites by holding their families hostage, so to speak, after Tae Yeong-ho's defection. Kim Jong-Un is just trying to prevent defections caused by his reign of terror through an even bigger iron fist. Ordinary North Koreans and even elites would keep risking their lives to flee from their country, if Kim's regime sticks to its authoritarian rule even in the face of chronic economic difficulties of its people.

It is likely, however, that the regime will continue its nuclear and missile provocations to prevent upper class members from defecting and consolidate Kim's leadership. The more violations North Korea commits against UN Security Council resolutions, the tougher the international sanctions will be. The Kim Jong-Un regime should realize that it cannot survive with nuclear and missile development when even the elite that has supported the regime started to turn their backs. And, as the recent increase in North Korean elite defectors suggests that there is growing unrest in the country since one of the strongest sets of international sanctions was imposed on North Korea, the international community should continue to have consistent sanctions in place against North Korea.

 

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Hyeon In-ae, Ph.D., North Korean defector, is a visiting Research Fellow of Korea Institute for National Unification(KINU). Born in Chongju, North Pyongan, North Korea on Feb. 7, 1957. She defected form North Korea in 2004. she received Ph.D., (more...)
 

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