The number fell to just 229 last year, well below 1,047 in 2019 when Pyongyang closed its border in the face of COVID-19.

The number of North Koreans who emigrated to South Korea fell last year after Pyongyang closed its border in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Seoul Union Ministry said on Wednesday.

The number has been steadily declining for some time, but fell to just 229 last year, the ministry said, well below the 1,047 figure for 2019.

The vast majority of defectors first travel to neighboring China, sometimes staying there for years before reaching the south via third countries, and only a handful risk crossing 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 US armed forces commander in the south said Pyongyang had issued shooting orders in his case Border areas.

It imposed a strict border closure last January to protect itself from the virus, which first appeared in China, its main ally.

“It looks like the number of [North Korean] People entering the south have decreased due to the impact of North Korean-Chinese border control and restrictions on shipments from third countries due to COVID-19, “the Seoul Unification Ministry said in a statement.

In one of the most prominent cases of last year, in November an unarmed man was arrested inside the civilian control line near Goseong city after cutting his way through the border fences. He later informed the South Korean authorities that he wanted to defeat.

Inter-Korean relations were frozen after the collapse of a summit meeting in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in 2019, which the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for easing sanctions.

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