List of North Korean defectors in South Korea

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This is a list of North Korean defectors in South Korea. North Korean defectors typically received a great deal of media attention in the past; however, as their numbers increase, this is becoming less common. Furthermore, the vast majority of defectors from North Korea are unable to proceed to the South; they instead end up settling illegally, typically in northeast China or the Russian Far East.

The month, day, and year, when known, refer to when the defector(s) arrived in South Korea. This list can never be exhaustive so long as the threat exists of retaliation by the North Korean government against "traitors" to the regime. Many defectors do not reveal their true identity and give interviews using a pseudonym.

  • 1953
    • 21 September — Air force senior lieutenant No Kum-Sok (age 21) flew his MiG-15 to the South. Since this fighter plane was then the best the Communist bloc had, No's defection was considered an intelligence bonanza, and he was awarded the then high sum of $100,000 and the right to reside in the United States.
  • 1968
    • Kim Shin-Jo – on 21 January, one of a 31-person team sent to the South to assassinate then-President Park Chung Hee. This led to retaliation in what is known as the Silmido incident. After his life was spared, he has become a missionary and has written books on how he found inner peace in Christianity.
  • 1982
    • Ri Han-yong – nephew of Kim Jong-il; shot to death in 1997 in Gyeonggi-do by unknown assailants widely suspected to be North Korean agents, in what was variously speculated to be an attempt to silence him after his publication of a tell-all book about Kim Jong-il's private life, revenge for his mother Song Hye-rang's defection a year earlier, or a warning to fellow defector Hwang Jang-yop.[1]
  • 1992
    • Kang Chol Hwan – Due to North Korea's policy of collective punishment, Kang was imprisoned at age 9 along with his entire family after his father, a Zainichi Korean who'd returned to North Korea, was accused of treason.[2] He was released 10 years later, fled to China and defected to South Korea in 1992, where he became a prominent human rights activist and a columnist at the Chosun Ilbo.[3] In 2001 he published a memoir titled "Aquariums of Pyongyang: ten years in the North Korean gulag", describing his experiences in Senghori and Yodok concentration camps.[3] In addition to a human rights advocate, Kang became a vocal critic of South Korea's "sunshine policy" under the Kim Dae Jung administration, arguing that it propped up the Kim family dictatorship and worsened the suffering of the North Korean people.[4]
  • 1994
    • Jang Gil-su – North Korean movie director who defected to the South and has become a successful director there.
  • 1995
    • Lee Soon-ok – December – high-ranking party member from northern province defected with son to the South via China and Hong Kong after suffering seven years in a political prisoner camp at Kaechon. She has since written her memoirs, Eyes of the Tailless Animals, and testified before the United States House of Representatives and the United Nations.
  • 1997
    • Hwang Jang-yop – 12 February – former secretary of the North Korean Workers Party and his aide, who came to the Consular Section of the Republic of Korea Embassy in Beijing seeking political asylum. They arrived in Seoul on 20 April after staying in the South Korean Consulate in Beijing for 34 days and in the Philippines for 33 days. Hwang is the highest ranking North Korean official to defect. Kim Dok-hong, his aide, defected with him.[5][6]
  • 1999
    • Jang Gil-su – fled North Korea at age 15, and became famous in South Korea following publication there and in the U.S. media of his chilling crayon drawings, which depict horrific abuses by North Korean authorities against North Korean civilians.
    • Park Sang Hak - Worked in a propaganda unit of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League until his family fled to South Korea. His work to spread information into North Korea resulted in an assassination attempt in 2011. Participated in the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009 and has released balloons from South Korea resulting in multiple arrests.[7]
  • 2002
    • October – Kyong Won-ha – father of North Korea's nuclear program, defected to the West, taking with him many of the secrets of the atomic program pioneered since 1984. He was one of 20 scientists and military officers who were smuggled out of North Korea during the alleged Operation Weasel.
    • Son Jong-hun – arrived in South Korea in 2002.[citation needed] His older brother, Son Jong-nam, was arrested in North Korea in January 2006; according to fellow inmates, he died in custody in December 2008.[8]
  • 2003
    • 26 December – Kim Cheol-woong, a classically trained musician, who now teaches piano in South Korea[9] and has performed in the United States.[10][11]
  • 2009
  • 2015
    • Unidentified Colonel - It was announced on April 11, 2016 that a colonel from North Korea's military spy agency defected to the south the previous year.[14] Senior-level defections are rare, though no motive was released regarding this defection.[15]
  • 2016


  1. ^ Pollack, Andrew (17 February 1997). "Korean shooting is casting cloud on signs of thaw". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 October 2007. 
  2. ^ "Child Prisoner: Kang Chol Hwan," NBC News, 28 October 2003
  3. ^ a b Chosun Ilbo, 26 October 2011
  4. ^ Wall Street Journal, 13 July 2005
  5. ^ Demick, Barbara (2010). Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (UK ed.). Granta Publications. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-84708-141-4. 
  6. ^ Scanlon, Charles (18 April 2006). "US pressure on 'criminal' N Korea". BBC News. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  7. ^ Feith, David (5 July 2013). "Park Sang Hak: North Korea's Enemy Zero". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 6 July 2013. 
  8. ^ Kim, Hyung-jin (5 July 2010), "AP Exclusive: NKorean killed for spreading Gospel", Associated Press, retrieved 8 July 2010 
  9. ^ Frances Yoon, Reuters, "N. Korean Risks Life, Flees for Love of Jazz Piano," RedOrbit
  10. ^ "INVITATION" (PDF). NK Economic Watch. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Sang-Hun, Choe (December 17, 2008). "North Korean defector's flight to musical freedom". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  12. ^ Park, Yeonmi (October 21, 2014). "North Korea's Black Market Generation". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved November 1, 2014. 
  13. ^ Jaafari, Shirin (October 10, 2014). "She risked her life to defect from North Korea — now she wants the world to hear her story". Public Radio International. Retrieved November 1, 2014. 
  14. ^ John Bacon (April 11, 2016). "Going South: Top North Korean colonel defects". USA Today. Retrieved April 11, 2016. 
  15. ^ Hyung-Jin Kim (April 11, 2016). "Seoul: Senior North Korea military officer defects to South". Associated Press. Retrieved April 11, 2016. 
  16. ^ "North Korea diplomat defects to South". BBC News. 2016-08-17. Retrieved 2016-08-17.