Over the last two months, at least a dozen North Korean boats have been found drifting off the coast of Japan carrying grisly cargo: 27 decomposing dead bodies. The "ghost ships," as they have come to be known, present the world with yet another mystery about the Hermit Kingdom. Were the corpses the remains of would-be spies or kidnappers dispatched by Kim Jong-un? Or ill-equipped fishermen who were caught too far out at sea? Or perhaps defectors hoping to find freedom by making the perilous journey across the Sea of Japan?
Like many questions about North Korea, it's nearly impossible to know for sure, but all signs point to them being fishermen: Some of the boats contained squid-fishing gear and other equipment, and the regime has reportedly increased catch quotas, which could force fishermen farther out into the rough seas between Korea and Japan. It's also exceedingly rare for defectors to attempt to reach Japan by boat — the last time it happened was in 2011.
At least one thing remains certain as 2015 comes to a close: North Koreans are still desperately trying to get the hell out of their country. The UN's refugee agency hasn't yet released statistics on the number of North Korean refugees this year, but at least a thousand defectors have been counted by the agency, known by its acronym UNHCR, and South Korea's Ministry of Unification every year since 1998. Last year, according to UNHCR, there were 1,522 North Korean refugees and asylum seekers.
The defectors come from all levels of North Korean society, including elites in Pyongyang. In October, South Korea's National Intelligence Service reportedly told lawmakers in Seoul that at least 20 government officials defected in 2015, including a diplomat based in Hong Kong who was involved with North Korea's infamous "Office 39," which handles the Kim regime's slush fund. However, a report in June from South Korean news agency Yonhap that claimed a North Korean biochemical weapons expert defected to Finland with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments was later found to be false.
The majority of defectors — more than 28,000 to date — head to South Korea, where they are granted automatic citizenship, undergo reorientation, and can receive financial support for up to five years. Most get there via a third country, usually travelling through China to Southeast Asia, but a handful — 65 since 2010 — have directly entered South Korea by land or sea. In June, a teenage North Korean soldier strolled across the DMZ, which is strewn with landmines and guarded by thousands of troops, and spent the night near a South Korean military post before turning himself in.
A handful of refugees end up in Western nations, including the United States. According to the US State Department's Refugee Processing Center, 14 North Koreans refugees were resettled across the US in 2015, with six ending up in Utah, and the rest landing in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, and Kentucky. Amid the backlash against refugees following the terror attacks in November in Paris, a bill was introduced in the US Senate to place a moratorium on accepting refugees from "high-risk countries," including North Korea and Syria. After turning away hundreds of North Korean refugees in recent years, Canadian lawmakers vowed to this year to start accepting them again.
There's evidence that suggests it's getting harder to escape North Korea. The number of annual defections has fallen by 44 percent since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father in 2011, plummeting from an average of 2,676 per year from 2007 to 2011 to around 1,500 per year under the younger Kim's reign. In October, authorities in North Korea's border region with China reportedly warned locals that anyone caught helping families escape will be put to death and have their relatives exiled to remote areas. Border guards were also reportedly warned about the repercussions of turning a blind eye to defections in exchange for bribes.
Any citizens caught fleeing face a stint in one of the country's notorious prison camps, where the United Nations says 80,000-120,000 people are currently being held. Detainees are forced to do hard labor and subjected to brutal conditions. In September, the UN opened an office in Seoul to further investigate the prison camps and exhort Pyongyang to shut them down. The North Korean government has repeatedly denied that the camps even exist.
Watch the VICE News Documentary, Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang:
Even those who make it safely across the border are not always guaranteed safety. Chinese authorities regularly repatriate defectors, and Vietnam deported nine North Koreans — including an 11-month-old baby — to China in late October after they were caught just across the border in the northeastern city of Mong Cai. Their last known whereabouts was a Chinese military garrison at the northwest tip of the North Korean border, and their ultimate fate remains unknown. China also tried unsuccessfully to block a UN Security Council session in early December about human rights in North Korea.
There are myriad reasons for defectors to make a break for it, including the fact that an estimated 2 million North Koreans remain malnourished, according to the UN. Rather than feed its citizens, the government has continued to spend heavily on developing missiles and growing its nuclear weapons program, despite the threat of additional sanctions. A lavish celebration with a huge military parade was held in Pyongyang on October 10 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.
Still, 2015 wasn't all bad for North Korea. While a severe drought early in the summer prompted fears of another famine like the one that killed tens of thousands of people in the 1990s, heavy rains in July seemingly prevented the worst-case scenario. There have also been reports that North Korea's historically moribund economy is on the upswing thanks to a variety of reforms rolled out last year by the Kim regime.
"The reforms, which appear to apply market principles to some sectors of North Korean business and agriculture, have created opportunities for economic growth in the impoverished country," the US Congressional Research Service wrote in July. "In the cities, practices such as allowing managers to set salaries and hire or fire workers are permitted. In the countryside, agricultural reforms allow for farmers to keep a larger portion of their harvest, relaxing the system of fixed rations, and reduced the size of farming collectives to individual households, to increase production incentives."
But while the Kim regime might be taking baby steps in the right direction, North Korea remains a country where wealth and privileges are only afforded to a tiny minority. In fact, as the year came to a close, the website DailyNK quoted sources in Pyongyang as saying hordes of donju — the country's class of nouveau riche — were descending on the capital to bribe the necessary officials in order to keep their businesses, and to "spend money like there is no tomorrow" at fancy hotels and restaurants. Some of their meals reportedly cost $400 in US currency, which could buy enough rice to feed a family of four for nearly a year.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton