North Korean defectors grab China lifeline to smuggle cash, goods to family back home – despite dangers for those left behind
China is the main way out of North Korea for people fleeing the country but for many of those who make it across the border and into the South, it is also a vital link for defectors sending much-needed money back to their families. In this instalment of a four-part series, Josephine Ma looks at how exiles in the South find ways to support and stay in touch with their relatives back home
China is a lifeline for North Korean defectors living in the South, allowing them to send money back to their families and get a glimpse of conditions today in the homeland they left behind.
Contact is usually brief and dangerous, with relatives travelling to the hermit kingdom’s border and using smuggled Chinese SIM cards to tap into telecommunications signals across the Yalu River.
According to Amnesty International, those in North Korea often have to walk through mountainous areas at night just for the fleeting phone conversations.
Remittances vary but a 2016 survey of 200 defectors by the Seoul-based Chosun newspaper found that about 60 per cent of the 200 respondents sent US$900-US$1,800 each year via agents in China and North Korea while one person reported sending US$9,000 a year. About 70 per cent said they transferred money regularly.
One mother in her 50s told the South China Morning Post that she remitted US$3,000 to her son in North Korea last year and had sent US$2,000 so far this year.
She said her son used a Chinese SIM card to make brief phone calls to her several times a year to confirm the transactions, and there was little time to ask him about his life.
“We cannot send text messages and the calls have to be short,” she said, adding that the conversations started with her son saying: “Mum, can you send me some money?”
She said the money was sent via a network of trusted Chinese and North Korean brokers, including smugglers who carried the cash across the border, together with other smuggled Chinese goods.
NGO workers said there were also brokers living in North Korea with Chinese bank accounts that they used to take payments.
The operations are illegal and dangerous in both countries so the brokers take a heavy cut, usually 30 per cent of the total, according to defectors.
Another defector said she received a call last month from her daughter in North Korea who said she needed money to pay for treatment for a sick member of the family.
The defector said that through the conversations she sensed that conditions were better than they were during the extreme famine of the late 1990s but food prices were soaring and many of her relatives were not getting paid.
She said 1kg of corn imported from China cost the equivalent of five months’ pay for a worker at a state factory.
“The country is in a mess,” she said.
Choi Seong-guk, a defector who cartoons about the lives of North Koreans in the South, said his contacts in the North suggested that the black market was thriving thanks to international sanctions.
Choi said the sanctions had cut off essential supplies, forcing the desperate public to turn to smugglers and making it more difficult for Pyongyang to control the distribution of food and money.
The regime appears to have tolerated the black market for years to keep the country afloat. But there were signs that it may want to tighten control over the economy, Choi said.
The North Korean regime had recently started a political campaign against “jobless people”, he said.
“As the economic situation worsened in North Korea, lots of people abandoned their state-related jobs and started to run their own businesses to survive. They are called the ‘jobless’ in North Korea. The regime is monitoring those jobless people to destroy capitalism within North Korean society,” Choi said.
He said the black market had improved the lives of some North Koreans in recent years and he was worried that peace talks between the North and South might result in easing of the sanctions, strengthening the Pyongyang regime’s grip on the economy.
Ji Hyeon-a, an outspoken North Korean defector who testified at the United Nations and met US Vice-President Mike Pence in South Korea earlier this year, agreed.
“I think we should impose stronger sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions stimulate North Korea’s market economy,” Ji said.