The numbers fell to just 229 last year, well below the 1,047 in 2019 as Pyongyang closed its border in the face of COVID-19.
The number of North Koreans who defected to South Korea fell last year after Pyongyang closed its border in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Seoul Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.
The figure has been falling steadily for some time, but fell to just 229 last year, the ministry said, well below the 2019 total of 1,047.
The vast majority of defectors travel to neighboring China first, sometimes staying there for years before heading south via third countries, and only a handful are likely to cross the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula.
The North has not confirmed a single case of COVID-19 – although experts have long said it is unlikely to have escaped the pandemic – and in September, the commander of US forces in the south said Pyongyang had issued shoot-to-kill orders in its border areas.
He imposed a strict border closure last January in an attempt to protect himself from the virus that first appeared in China, its main ally.
“It seems that the number of [North Korean] the number of people entering the south has declined due to the effects of North Korean and Chinese border control and restrictions on movement from third countries due to COVID-19, ”the Unification Ministry said Seoul in a statement.
In one of the most publicized cases of the past year, a unarmed man was arrested inside the civilian control line near Goseong town in November after pushing his way through border fences. He later told South Korean authorities that he wanted to defect.
Inter-Korean relations were deeply frozen following the collapse of a summit in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in 2019 over what the nuclear armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for easing sanctions.