A cellphone smuggled into North Korea helped Lee Seo Yeon take on two missions: one emotional, one financial.
Once the 40-year-old defector Lee was certain she was talking to her sister, a broker took the phone on the North Korean end. Lee transferred 2 million won ($1,880) to a South Korean bank account belonging to a Korean-Chinese who was working with the broker, who confirmed the transfer and handed the phone back. The arrangement gave Lee’s sister 70 percent of the money, with a 30 percent cut for the go-betweens.
Smuggled phones, combined with a resourceful underground network of brokers inside and outside North Korea, are allowing defectors not only to connect with long-lost relatives, but to send them desperately needed cash. The process remains risky, both for people within the arm of North Korean law and defectors worried about getting cheated.
The Chinese phones are illegal in North Korea, but cheap and widely available. Since late in the last decade, they have become an increasingly common way for many of the roughly 25,000 defectors in South Korea, and others hiding in China, to talk to and help relatives who stayed behind.
One recent survey by a Seoul civic group of about 400 defectors suggested that one in every two defector families in the South send home money, mostly between 500,000 won ($470) and 3 million won ($2,820) per year.
They do this even though most defectors struggle to make a living in the highly competitive, well-educated South: Their average monthly wage is about 1.4 million won ($1,320), about half the pay of an average South Korean worker.
“Even though we have very small incomes here, we still eat rice at every meal,” Seoul-based defector Choi Jung-hoon said. “If we don’t buy new clothes, we can save some money to send to our family members in the North. That’s a lot of money for them.”