Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mother had climbed a mountain near her home in in North Korea and used a broker’s smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her daughter happy birthday. For the first time in years, Choi didn’t get her annual birthday call.
Choi, who hasn’t sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world’s toughest restrictions on movement. Many other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19.
Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors now say they’ve stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes, or because brokers are demanding extremely high fees.
Brokers in North Korea use smuggled mobile phones to call the South from mountains near the border with China, where they can get better reception and avoid official detection. Defectors send money to the bank accounts of other brokers on the Chinese side of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are often also smuggling goods in and out of North Korea, so this means that money transfers don’t need to be sent across the border immediately; instead, brokers in North Korea can give the cash to defectors’ relatives and get paid back by their smuggling partners in China later. But North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling business.
“The money we send is a lifeline,” said Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equivalent of $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30-40 per month.”