N.Korea defectors prompted to flee by strict COVID-19 controls -S.Korea spy agency

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks walk amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - Defectors who fled North Korea early this month decided to do so because of the country's strict COVID-19 controls, South Korea's spy agency said on Friday.

The group of North Koreans, nearly 10 people, crossed the border by ship on the night of May 6, crossing the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, news agency Yonhap reported.

"The defectors testified that they used to watch South Korean TV and admired South Korean society. Then social controls became tougher due to COVID and they grew tired of the North Korean regime," the National Intelligence Service (NIS) told Reuters, confirming the Yonhap report.

The spy agency declined to elaborate, citing concerns over exposing the identities of the defectors and compromising the safety of their families in the North.

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has plunged in recent years as Pyongyang imposed stricter border controls during the COVID pandemic.

Only 67 people fled the North for the South last year compared with 1,047 in pre-COVID 2019, according to the Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Editing by Tom Hogue)