Escaping North Korea – Recent Soldier Defections are Just Tip of the Iceberg

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.


Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.