How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home
It may seem like North and South Korea are completely cut off from each other, but even after decades of separation, channels of communication persist. Defectors who have made it to freedom are bridging the gap, connecting people inside North Korea to the world beyond. Through extensive broker networks, they send back money and information, accelerating change in the world’s most authoritarian country.
Through this process known as remittances, millions of dollars are sent into the country every year, representing huge spending power. Here’s how they do it!
Reconnecting with Family
To send money back home, North Korean refugees must first contact their families. They hire brokers to find their relatives and arrange illicit phone calls close to the border with China, where smuggled Chinese cell phones can connect to international networks. In North Korea, people are often wary of such brokers, so they may have to be convinced with codewords or childhood nicknames that only the family would know, or recognizable handwriting and photos.
To avoid being caught, contact is often made from the mountain at night, or using a series of text or voice messages sent through apps like Wechat and quickly deleted. When the call finally happens, it can be emotional for both sides.
“You hear someone say, ‘Okay you’re connected, you can speak now.’ But no one says anything to each other. You just hear a high-pitched tone, and silence. Could this be real? You’re just crying, and can’t even speak.”
– Miso, escaped North Korea in 2010
How Remittances Work
There are different ways to send money to North Korea, but a simple version involves three parties: A North Korean resettled in South Korea, a remittance broker in North Korea, and the recipient in North Korea.
- A resettled North Korean, makes a request to a remittance broker to arrange a transfer. They wire money to a Chinese account controlled by that broker.
- The remittance broker in North Korea uses a smuggled Chinese phone to confirm receipt of the funds.
- After taking a hefty commission, they give cash to the refugee’s family. The family can confirm receipt of the money by sending a photo, video, or voice message back, so the sender can be confident that they’ve not been scammed.
With this process, the remittance broker in North Korea occasionally needs to replenish their cash on hand. This could happen through the physical smuggling of cash, but oftentimes money from their Chinese bank account is used to buy goods in China that are then sold in North Korea, generating cash. In this way, physical money never actually has to cross borders.
The Power to Change Lives
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, whereas South Korea is one of the richest. Therefore remittances from relatives in South Korea or elsewhere can be absolutely transformative. The money is spent on almost everything, including food, clothing, shoes, medicine, housing, transport, and bribes to keep the family safe.
“I’ve sent money back to North Korea ever since I resettled in South Korea. I send an average of $1,500 a year. My parents used the money to buy a house! They’re also going to use it to help my younger brother escape and come to South Korea.”
– Jeonghyuk, resettled North Korean refugee
With new resources also comes new opportunities. North Koreans who never had the means before can now think about starting a business at the Jangmadang, or market. Since the collapse of the regime’s socialist economy in the 1990s, the markets have become essential to making a living. The flow of remittances is increasing trade, food security, marketization, and entrepreneurship, empowering ordinary North Koreans to gain autonomy.
A Ripple Effect
Along with money, North Korean refugees send back news and information from the outside world. At first, family members back home may not want to hear about life beyond the border. Decades of propaganda villainizing the outside world can be difficult to overcome, and if caught in communication with defectors, they could face serious punishment.
But as money continues to flow in, many people can’t help but be curious- what do their relatives outside do to make a living? What kind of house do they live in? Is life there like the K-dramas smuggled into North Korea? Conversely, defectors ask their family members, what they can do with the money in North Korea? This exchange of information is incredibly valuable, providing a glimpse into the most closed society on earth.
The flow of information into North Korea erodes the regime’s propaganda and changes worldviews. As the people learn more about the wealth and opportunities of the outside world, some may also risk their lives to escape. Money sent from remittances can also be used to fund this dangerous journey.
“When I first contacted my family back in North Korea after I resettled in South Korea, they didn’t believe that I was doing well here. My parents even resented me a little for leaving. But after I sent them money and told them more about my life here, their views changed. Now they realize that the regime has been lying to them and they’re not as loyal anymore. I have become a pioneer of freedom to my family back in North Korea.”
– Jo Eun, rescued by LiNK in 2017
Agents of Change
Remittances are about more than just the movement of money. Refugees who have been separated from their families aren’t able to go back home themselves, but can still care for their loved ones in some way. Every phone call into the country and every dollar sent back represents one small step towards the day when the North Korean people finally achieve their freedom.
More than 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it to freedom, and although it has become more difficult during the pandemic, surveys report that 65.7% have sent money back to North Korea. At LiNK, we’re committed to working with and building the capacity of North Korean refugees so they can succeed in their new lives and make an even bigger impact in their communities and on this issue.
Empowering North Korean Refugees | An Overview of LiNK’s Programs
North Korean people live in the most authoritarian and closed country in the world, deprived of their basic human rights and potential. For decades, they’ve faced a brutal dictatorship, systematic oppression, and enforced poverty. Despite the circumstances, North Koreans are striving towards freedom from both inside and outside of the country, creating irreversible change.
Since its founding in 2004, Liberty in North Korea has not wavered in its vision- a day when every North Korean man, woman, and child can live free and full lives. Yet during that time, our approach has shifted, transformed, and evolved. With an issue as complex as North Korea and as fundamental as human rights, we needed a holistic set of programs to enact change at multiple levels.
Refugee rescues are just the beginning. Over the years, we’ve expanded our approach and developed new ways to support and build the capacity of North Korean people. Here’s how we’re working together to accelerate change.
Rescue and Resettlement Support
The journey to freedom is not an easy one, but it begins with a choice. A choice to hope, to live, and sometimes to leave. Over the last decade, more than 1,300 North Korean refugees and their children have made this difficult decision and reached freedom through LiNK’s networks.
LiNK provides critical humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees in China, helping them escape through a “modern day underground railroad.” It’s a dangerous 3,000 mile journey from the border of North Korea to Southeast Asia, from where they can safely resettle in South Korea or the U.S. The route is dotted with security checkpoints, state-of-the-art surveillance, and the constant risk of being forcibly sent back. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Koreans as refugees, instead cooperating with the North Korean regime. If caught, North Korean refugees are forcibly returned to North Korea, where they may face severe punishment, imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
Helping North Koreans escape has only become more challenging since the start of the pandemic. Extreme border lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions made the journey nearly impossible and left many vulnerable refugees stuck in hiding, at even greater risk of exploitation. But the North Korean people didn’t give up, and neither did we. Our field team worked tirelessly to establish new routes and adapt to the circumstances on the ground, making rescues a reality again in late 2022.
We were also able to work with the U.S. Government to help unique and exceptional cases of North Koreans in third countries come to the United States utilizing a process known as “Humanitarian Parole” (HP). HP cases do not arrive in the U.S. with refugee status. As a result, LiNK provides full sponsorship and support in housing, medical, and financial assistance; interpretation and translation services; and coordinating legal needs to receive status.
Though nothing short of a herculean effort, reaching freedom is just the beginning. And navigating this newfound autonomy comes with unique challenges in both the U.S. and South Korea. Resettled North Koreans face enormous social, cultural and technological chasms that must be bridged in a short period of time. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, fifty years into the future.
LiNK’s resettlement program helps support the success of North Korean refugees. Whether this means financial assistance, making home visits, connecting people to resources and services, hosting workshops, or organizing community gatherings, we work together to develop self efficacy for a sustainable future.
From rescue to resettlement, LiNK walks with North Korean refugees into their new lives. A world of endless possibilities awaits, and we’re excited to see them reach their full potential and achieve their dreams.
Empowering Agents of Change
Emerging from one of the most hostile regimes in the world, North Korean defectors have demonstrated strength and resilience that most of us can not even imagine. They’ve asserted themselves as their people’s greatest hope. One of our biggest opportunities is to go beyond just resettlement support and invest in developing the capacity of North Koreans as agents of change.
A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Koreans is English language ability. It’s not only an essential skill for access to educational and career opportunities–it’s a tool to promote self-efficacy and narrative agency. In response to this need, we launched the LiNK English Language program (LELP) in South Korea. As of Fall 2022, over 200 North Korean students have participated in this program and were matched 1:1 with volunteer tutors. They emerged with the confidence and communication skills to advocate for themselves and others, and new connections that will last a lifetime.
"Before taking the program, I always felt reluctant to respond whenever foreigners came and asked for directions. Now I am not afraid of speaking in English anymore! I was able to improve and make more complete sentences by practicing grammar lessons. As LiNK’s vision is to help the North Korean people achieve freedom, LELP helped me achieve freedom in my English!"
– Minjeong, LELP 2021 participant
For North Koreans who are interested in growing as activists through their studies and extracurricular activities, LiNK offers the Changemakers Scholarship. Recipients are provided with six months of financial support to increase their capacity for advocacy work. Before participating in the program, only 9.6% of participants felt financially stable. After the program, 58% felt financially stable, their part-time job hours decreased by 7 hours a week on average, and 45% of participants saw an increase in their GPA.
On the U.S. side, many North Korean refugees have a difficult time finding professional development opportunities and breaking into the industries that interest them. Through our Mentorship Program, we connect them with mentors who can provide guidance on everything from resume building and interview strategies to financial management, investing, and counseling.
By developing programs like this, we’re empowering North Koreans with the confidence and capacity to navigate the world and be an agent of change. They’re educating audiences about North Korea and mobilizing Allies (like you!) around the world. They’re sending money and information back to their families in North Korea, transforming their country from the bottom up. Most importantly, they’re proving the potential of the 25 million people inside North Korea still striving towards freedom and a better future.
Accelerating Change in North Korea
A crucial way the North Korean government maintains control is by preventing the people from accessing outside information and media, instead bombarding them with propaganda. Despite this, North Korean people have found ways to access foreign information through smuggled devices and the proliferation of grassroots market activity.
Foreign media can have a powerful influence on how North Koreans perceive the outside world. Consuming smuggled movies, television shows, and music is not just entertaining–it’s educational. A screen can become someone’s window to the world. Through it, they see what it means to live in freedom and can begin to call their own reality into question.
"As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction. Much more needs to be done to increase the flows of information into North Korea.”
– Thae Yong-ho, Ex-North Korean Diplomat
North Korean defectors consistently say that increasing people’s access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to accelerate change inside the country. LiNK Labs is our space to innovate new ideas that empower North Korean people with information and technology from the outside world.
While much of this work must remain highly confidential to be effective, some key strategies include:
- Collaborating with external partners, including recently arrived defectors for the latest intel on the information landscape in North Korea
- Creating and curating content tailored for North Koreans inside the country
- Localizing existing technologies for safer distribution and consumption of information
With ongoing pandemic-related border closures and restrictions on movement, the information landscape in North Korea has become even more challenging in recent years. The regime has increased the severity of crackdowns and punishment for consuming and sharing foreign media, including credible reports of executions. This shows not just where the regime’s priorities lie, but that these social changes are a real threat to the regime’s control in the long term.
Changing the Narrative on North Korea
While dictators and nuclear missiles command headlines about North Korea, they erase the real heart of the country– its people. This is what the regime wants, to control the narrative both domestically and internationally. So when North Korean defectors share their authentic stories and perspectives, it’s a powerful act of defiance and a crucial way to change the narrative on North Korea. LiNK amplifies North Korean voices through online media, documentaries, and events, and empowers North Korean people to take authorship over their own stories.
LiNK’s Advocacy Fellows program supports and develops the next generation of North Korean leaders, storytellers, and advocates. We believe they will be the ones to create a new vision for North Korea and spearhead that change. Fellows participate in workshops to improve their knowledge on the issue, English language, public speaking, and storytelling skills before traveling across the United States. They speak at churches, community centers, universities, and Fortune 500 companies, and also brief key policy makers and stakeholders. Audiences have included the United Nations, State Department, The White House, National Security Council, the intelligence community, and embassies and think-tanks. Ultimately, Fellows are working to bring a greater focus to the North Korean people and human rights issues rather than just politics.
75% of people who attended an Advocacy Fellows event said it was their first time meeting a North Korean person, and 81% said their perspective on North Korea had been forever changed.
Young South Koreans also have massive potential to be a greater force for progress. Despite sharing a border and heritage with North Korea, the general public in South Korea has become increasingly disengaged from the issue. For decades, the narrative has been centered on politics and the threat of war, and this has contributed to creating an unwelcome environment for many North Korean refugees resettling in South Korea. We’re working to humanize people’s perspective of North Korea and raise a new generation of South Korean activists through our Co-Creators Program.
Each year, Co-Creators brings together North and South Korean students to work on collaborative advocacy projects, tapping into their potential as changemakers and activists redefining North Korea for their generation. They pitch ideas, train with us to improve writing and storytelling skills, and then execute their concept in the public sphere. In 2022, Co-Creators organized a Jangmadang (North Korean market) experience where visitors could learn more about the issue through interactive booths. They reached a total of 242,423 participants both online and in-person over the course of three days.
We believe it will be this new generation of young North and South Korean activists who will influence government policy and public attitudes towards North Korea, and will be crucial in shaping the country’s future when North Korea is finally free.
All around the world, we’re mobilizing a movement of support for the North Korean people. Our goal is to rally 25 million Allies – one Ally for every person in North Korea – who will help us inspire this generation, advocate for change, and stand with the North Korean people. Helping us to achieve this are LiNK Teams, student and community groups across the globe that are committed to seeing the North Korean people achieve their liberty in our lifetime.
Up until now, the scale of humanity’s response to this issue has not matched the scale of the challenge and oppression that the North Korean people face. By changing the narrative on North Korea, we believe that we can change the way that people, institutions, and governments respond to this challenge, and provide the support and resources the North Korean people deserve in order to determine their own future.
A Story of Human Triumph
From helping North Koreans in their escape to empowering a new generation of changemakers, our work is only possible because of the Liberty Community - monthly donors who enable us to develop and sustain these life-changing programs. Because of this community, we can rise to new challenges and sustainably develop long-term solutions.
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To ensure that the story of North Korea is one of human triumph, freedom, and the fulfilled potential of 25 million North Korean people!