Around 31,000 North Koreans have defected into the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Most of the North Koreans who defect do so via the long and expensive journey that takes them into China after crossing the Yalu River.
Um Yae-run, a 41-year-old defector who now works in Seoul at a marriage bureau and also as a broker, explains, “A lot of people who come to South Korea become brokers. They work with brokers in China who work with brokers in North Korea.
“If someone in the South wants to bring a family member over, they will give the address of the person in North Korea to the South Korean broker who will pass it on. In North Korea, you can’t trust anyone. So we give the brokers personal information, like a code word, so the person knows who sent the broker.
“The person will then work with the brokers to get you to the border. In North Korea, if you have money, you can do anything. If you don’t live near the border you need to take a train for which you will need a license. The brokers will pay to get you on the train and bribe the railway officials.
“Once at the border, the broker will arrange a time for crossing the river. In the summer, you might swim with a black rubber boat or the boat might have a string attached to the Chinese side that the brokers there will pull. The brokers might also bribe the border patrol to tell them their shifts so they can cross over then. If they can strike a deal, it becomes easy.
“When I crossed the border, it cost me around 3m Korean won ($2,800). When my daughter came, I paid 6.5m ($6,000). Now, it costs almost 10m won ($9,300). Coming to South Korea will cost you around 15m won ($14,000). Crossing the border is the most expensive part.
“After arriving in South Korea, I …worked as a broker because for every person you help, you made around two to four million Korean won ($1,800 to $3,700).”