ANSAN, South Korea (AP) — For the primary time in years, Choi Bok-hwa didn’t get her annual birthday name from her mom in North Korea. Every January, Choi’s mom had climbed a mountain and used a dealer’s smuggled Chinese language cellphone to name South Korea to want her joyful birthday and prepare a badly wanted cash switch.
Choi, who hasn’t despatched cash or talked to her 75-year-old mom since Could, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to close its borders tighter than ever and impose a number of the world’s hardest restrictions on motion.
Different defectors within the South have additionally misplaced contact with their family members in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19 — and the difficulty isn’t just on the North Korean aspect. The disconnection between defectors and their households within the North is shutting down an essential emotional and monetary hyperlink between the rival Koreas, whose residents are banned from contacting one another.
Defectors within the South have lengthy shared a part of their revenue with dad and mom, kids and siblings in North Korea. However these defectors, who face power discrimination and poverty within the South, now say they’ve stopped or sharply diminished the remittances due to plunging incomes. Others are suspending them as a result of they’ll’t contact the brokers who act as middlemen or as a result of the brokers are demanding extraordinarily excessive charges.
Choi, a singer in a North Korean-themed artwork troupe, final yr earned solely about 10-20% of what she often will get due to canceled performances.
“I’m ready for her name greater than ever today,” mentioned Choi, 47, who lives in Ansan, simply south of Seoul.
About 33,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea since North Korea suffered a famine within the mid-Nineteen Nineties. Final yr, throughout the pandemic, solely 229 got here to South Korea, down from 1,047 in 2019.
Many defectors use brokers to remain in contact with their households within the North, however that course of is complicated, costly and dangerous.
Brokers in North Korea typically use smuggled cellphones to name the South from mountains close to the border with China, the place they’ll get higher reception and keep away from official detection.
The calls are sometimes adopted by cash transfers, which require defectors to ship cash to the financial institution accounts of different brokers on the Chinese language aspect of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are sometimes individually smuggling items out and in of North Korea. Which means that cash transfers don’t must be despatched throughout the border instantly; as an alternative, brokers in North Korea can provide the money to defectors’ kin and receives a commission again by their smuggling companions in China later.
However North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling enterprise, leaving brokers with little cash to make use of for defectors’ remittances, observers say.
Gen. Robert Abrams, the chief of U.S. troops in South Korea, mentioned final yr that North Korea had despatched particular forces alongside its border with China to maintain smugglers out and had “shoot-to-kill orders in place.”
Lee Sang Yong, managing editor at Each day NK in Seoul, a web based media group with sources in North Korea, mentioned Pyongyang has tried to jam cell indicators and enforced extreme restrictions alongside the border.
Brokers in North Korea and China have lengthy taken 30% of the cash being transferred as fee. However throughout the pandemic some brokers have taken a 40-50% slice, in response to defectors and activists.
There aren’t any official, intensive research on how the pandemic has affected cash transfers. However separate surveys of a number of hundred defectors by civic teams confirmed 18-26% of respondents despatched cash to North Korea final yr, down from about 50% in a similar-sized ballot in 2014.
Shin Mi-nyeo, head of the Saejowi civic group that carried out one of many current surveys, mentioned that cash transfers have been down even earlier than the pandemic as a result of many defectors had reduce contact with their households within the North for monetary causes.
“They’re initially wanting to help their households within the North as a result of they know what their lives are like there,” Shin mentioned. After some time, although, it turns into “out of sight, out of thoughts.”
Every time Choi’s mom referred to as her, she typically gave the cellphone numbers of neighbors who had fled to South Korea who weren’t answering calls from their households again house.
When Choi reached a few of them, she mentioned they advised her that sickness or monetary difficulties meant they could not afford the common requests for cash from their households within the North, the place the estimated gross nationwide revenue per capita in 2019 was one-Twenty seventh of South Korea’s.
It isn’t clear how a lot worse this can make the North’s already moribund economic system. South Korea’s spy company final yr reported a four-fold value improve of imported meals like sugar and seasoning within the North, whereas Chinese language knowledge present its official commerce quantity with North Korea plunged by 80% final yr.
“The cash we ship is a lifeline,” mentioned Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equal of $890 to every of his two siblings yearly earlier than the pandemic. “It’s such massive cash. If somebody works actually diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make solely $30-40 per 30 days.”
Cho mentioned his siblings used to journey for hours to the border to satisfy brokers and name him for cash. However he hasn’t heard from his siblings since November 2019.
Cho mentioned some “robber-like brokers” now ask for an enormous reduce of the transferred cash and that a lot of his defector mates are ready for commissions to stabilize earlier than resuming remittances.
Kim Hyeong Soo, 57, mentioned North Koreans with members of the family in South Korea was once referred to as “traitors’ households.” However the sneer turned to envy once they started receiving cash. Kim, co-head of a human rights group referred to as the Stepping Stones, mentioned he stopped sending remittances final yr as a result of his revenue plummeted.
South Korean regulation bans its residents from unauthorized contact with North Koreans, however authorities don’t strictly apply the rules to defectors due to humanitarian causes. North Korean officers typically overlook cash transfers as a result of they get bribes from these receiving cash.
“North Korean law enforcement officials are poor, too,” Cho mentioned.
Cho, head of the Seoul-based NGO Good Farmers, mentioned it’s “very burdensome” to ship cash to his siblings, however he’d do it once more if his household referred to as. “I really feel sorry for them as a result of we couldn’t come right here collectively.”
Daniel Elton, senior editor at Wahu Times, writes about politics and policy with a focus on climate advocacy. Daniel previously at the New Republic and, and Self. Daniel can be reached by email.