Under one common method of transferring money, North Korean defectors use online banking sites to wire money to a bank account of a Korean-Chinese broker based in a Chinese town near the border with North Korea. The broker then takes out 20 to 30 percent of the money as commissions and asks a Korean-Chinese trader, who can freely cross the border into North Korea, to deliver the rest of the money to the defector’s relatives.
The step of carrying money across the border is not always necessary when the go-betweens are involved in separate operations of smuggling Chinese goods for sale in North Korean markets. For example, a North Korean broker who owes money to a Chinese supplier could pay the debt by giving a defector’s family cash, if the supplier is also involved in the transaction.
If a defector’s family lives far from the Chinese border, a transfer will take more effort because North Korea restricts its citizens’ movement and has poor transportation services.
In the early days, brokers frequently cheated defectors, but the business has since become more orderly and lucrative, with brokers more concerned about retaining customers.
It’s not known how many North Koreans have been arrested for getting money from their relatives in South Korea or communicating with them. But activists who have interviewed defectors say many North Koreans have avoided trouble by using some of the money to bribe local officials.
At the same time, activists and defectors say North Korea has been cracking down, using equipment near the border to check for signals from Chinese mobile phones.