China is a lifeline for North Korean defectors living in the South, allowing them to send money back to their families. Contact is usually brief and dangerous, with relatives traveling to the hermit kingdom’s border and using smuggled Chinese SIM cards to tap into telecommunications signals across the Yalu River.
A 2016 survey of 200 defectors by the Seoul-based Chosun newspaper found that about 60 per cent of the 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 money to her son in North Korea. 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.
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. 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 food prices were soaring in North Korea 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.
[South China Morning Post]