The number of North Koreans resettling in the South has increased in recent years, said a South Korean official Monday.
Last year, about 2,900 people made their way to the democratic South, and over 2,000 have arrived so far this year, said Jong-joo Lee, an official with the Unification Ministry. Each month, an average of 200 North Koreans make it to the South, according to the Ministry.
In total, more than 20,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the Korean War ended with a ceasefire in 1953. The 20,000th North Korean arrived in South Korea last Thursday.
Lee said the ministry believes worsening economic situations and food scarcity in the North is driving North Koreans to the South. Defectors escape by crossing into China and then making their way to a third country. Tens of thousands of defectors are believed to be hiding in China, which has a pact with its communist neighbor to repatriate North Koreans if found.
But once in the South, North Koreans receive automatic citizenship. They also receive three months of resettlement training by the government, a subsidy of about $5,400, and help with housing, according to Yonhap news agency.
"I love studying English. I didn't know my ABCs before coming here. Now I'm good," said Ho rim Ahn, a 14-year-old boy who defected last year, to Yonhap. "I also feel stronger now. I eat eggs and meat. I no longer have to eat bark."
Many children in North Korea face malnutrition given the North's chronic food shortage, said the United Nation's World Food Program executive director, Josette Sheeran, last week.
"Their bodies and minds are stunted and so we really feel the need there," Sheeran said, according to Reuters. "We want to make sure we reach the most vulnerable children."
As many as 6.2 million people out of 23 million in the North depend on food aid, the WFP said in March. In 2006, the WFP reported that 37 percent of children under the age of six in North Korea were chronically malnourished and one-third of North Korean women were anemic and malnourished.
The food scarcity has pushed North Koreans to migrate illegally into China, where they sometimes meet Christians who provide food, shelter and guidance to South Korea.
A Korean-American, Steve Kim, was jailed in China from 2003 to 2007 for helping North Korean refugees. His prison sentence is believed to be the longest in China for a humanitarian worker. Kim first encountered the sufferings of North Korean refugees as an American businessman who traveled frequently to China. As a Christian, he said he could not ignore nor forget the dire needs he witnessed and returned to America to raise financial support at his home church, Good Neighbor Community Church in Long Island, to help the refugees.
The same year that Kim was released, the Rev. Phillip Jun Buck, originally from North Korea, received the Civil Courage Prize from The Train Foundation that recognized his "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk." Buck spent ten years working in China to provide financial support, shelter, and food to over 1,000 North Korean refugees.
Buck began to move refugees to South Korea in 2001. To this day, he has guided over one hundred North Korean refugees out of China and ultimately to safety in South Korea.
Buck, who was jailed in May 2005 and released in August 2006, stayed at the same facility as Steve Kim during their imprisonment in China.
China classifies North Korean refugees residing within its borders as "illegal economic migrants" even though the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea declares North Koreans who flee to China "refugees." Under the status of "illegal economic migrants," China treats the defectors as criminals, jailing or forcefully repatriating them back to North Korea where they face imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.
Both the United States and South Korea, however, welcome North Korean refugees to settle in their countries. But China has employed many tactics to block the refugees from escaping to these third countries.