The changes come via a bill submitted by South Korea's Ministry of Unification. The increase is the first in 20 years, the Yonhap news agency reports. Considering the dangers of defecting, both to the defector and to family and friends left behind, the current amount is "woefully inadequate," a ministry source told the agency.
The bill would increase the prize for those with useful classified information from about $217,000 to $860,000. Those arriving with a military plane or vessel will now get about $868,000, up from $130,000. Turning in a North Korean tank, armored vehicle or guided weapon will net defectors more than $260,000, up from a paltry $43,400. Troops with small arms and service weapons will get up to $43,400, a fourfold increase from the previous reward of about $8,700.
South Korea also has resettlement programs in place that provide initial housing, education, counseling and healthcare, but support is phased out after a few years.
The ministry source told Yonhap the increase reflects consumer price changes since the amounts were set way back in 1997. A North Korean defector apparently told southern officials that increasing the reward could encourage his countrymen to betray their leader.
"One of the biggest reasons why North Koreans are hesitant about defecting is because they are fearful of making a living after they come to South Korea," the ministry official told Yonhap. "The planned changes can alleviate such worries to a certain extent."
Tensions are high between the two nations: North Korea recently tested a ballistic missile and may be preparing for a new nuclear test and South Korea is getting ready to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system North Korea calls a provocation.
North Korea has also come into the spotlight again with the bizarre murder of leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother in Malaysia. South Korea has already accused the North of being behind the murder, incensing the leadership of the pariah state.
Last August, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea's deputy ambassador in London, fled to Seoul with his wife and family. He said at a press conference late last year that he welcomed the regime of Kim Jong-un because he thought the leader's international education would help him make wise decisions. But instead, Kim's "obsession" with nuclear weapons began to scare him.
"I came to the decision to defect to South Korea in order to do something to save the Korean people from nuclear disaster," Thae said. He believes getting information to the isolated North Korean people will help end the "system of slavery" that exists in the north.
Defecting from North Korea is not easy, especially as many routes defectors may take eventually pass through China, which has a policy of returning undocumented North Koreans to their country.