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How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home

July 22, 2022

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!

North Korean refugees can send money to their families back home


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.  

  1. 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. 
  2. The remittance broker in North Korea uses a smuggled Chinese phone to confirm receipt of the funds.
  3. 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.

How North Korean refugees send money back into the country


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.

North Koreans engaging in market activity and entrepreneurship. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.


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.

Resettled North Korean refugee, Geum Ju, living in South Korea as a florist

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

Jo Eun, resettled in South Korea



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. 

North Korean Agents of Change | Seohyun’s Story

November 28, 2022

It was an ordinary taxi ride. The driver struck up a casual conversation, commenting about the weather, asking what I do. At some point I shared that I was from North Korea- after two years studying abroad in China, I was used to the curiosity that typically followed.

But instead, the driver pointed to a picture of Deng Xiaoping on his rear view mirror. He explained how China was able to open up, reform, and get out of poverty. Then he asked, very pointedly, “why hasn’t your leader done the same thing, and left the people to starve?”

That was the moment when over two decades of brainwashing finally began to unravel.

My name is Seohyun Lee and I’m an advocate for the North Korean people. I was born and raised in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This is my story.

I had the unique opportunity to study in China because of my father’s position and commitment to the regime. He was a high-ranking overseas economic officer, and was allowed to bring his children if he could afford all living expenses and tuition. At first, my brother and I alternated our time in China- one member of the family always had to stay behind as a hostage. But in 2010, the regime adopted a more open policy that allowed entire families to be together, so we were all finally reunited.

Growing up in Pyongyang, the circle of elites was very small. Every so often, you’d hear about a family that was sent to a political prison camp because someone’s son or daughter acted out of line. I restrained myself from an early age because I knew my actions and words could threaten the safety of my loved ones.

So even after learning the truth about North Korea, there was not much I could do. I hoped that because Kim Jong Un was a younger guy who had also studied abroad in Switzerland, our generation could change North Korea with more open-minded leadership. But it turned out to be even worse than before.

My fondest memories in China are with my roommate, another North Korean exchange student. She was my best friend and like a big sister to me. We traveled, shopped, and shared many delicious meals together.  When I was sick with the flu, she took me to the hospital and stayed by my side until my IV was finished. During those years, she was like another part of me.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw her. I watched helplessly as she was forcefully taken from our dorm room by North Korean officers. Her father was executed for being associated with Kim Jong Un’s uncle, and she was sent to a political prison camp with the rest of her family. 

That day, my eyes were opened to the brutality of the regime. To them, we were  just like batteries to be thrown away when used up. Our lives never mattered.

I miss her so much. I really want to believe that she’s still alive, and one day I can meet her again.

What happened to my roommate was not an isolated incident. Starting in 2013, there were countless executions and purges happening in North Korea under the Kim Jong Un regime. My family and I lost many friends, neighbors, and respected colleagues. While dealing with great loss, we also knew that at any moment, we could be next.

It was a crisp fall evening. My family and I drove to a park and left our phones in the car. We walked until we were out of earshot, and finally talked openly about what we should do.

My father worked hard because he had hope that improving the economy would better the lives of the people. But we realized that under the current system, what he desired was not possible. So in order to save ourselves and also bring change to the country, we decided to leave in October 2014.

My dad still has a huge heart for North Korea. But I want to make sure that his love for the country is separated from being loyal to the regime. Back in North Korea, he worked tirelessly for a better future for the people. Today, he’s working towards the day where every North Korean has guaranteed human rights and three meals a day.

Like a lot of Asian parents, my father is not good at outwardly expressing affection. The way it manifests is through constant nagging. I didn't get it when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, I now understand that's how he shows his love and care for us.

There have been moments when I’ve wished I was born in a different country. But when I think about my family, I never regret it. 

My dad has been our foundation, my mom is the most thoughtful and perfect woman I know, and my brother has always looked out for me. We all love and support each other, especially after going through so much together.

This fall, I started my graduate studies at Columbia University. I never imagined that I would be chasing my dreams here in America. I hope to use everything I learn to bring a better future for the North Korean people, even after they become free from the current regime.

When my family and I left China, we came here not only to save ourselves, but with ambitions to change the system and bring freedom. Many people have not been as lucky as I have, so I feel it is my privilege and obligation to be a voice for my fellow North Koreans. I believe many of them are already opening their minds to the outside world. 

We need to let them know that there’s a global movement of people who have their backs, and we can’t wait for them to be free.

It’s #GivingTuesday, the year’s biggest day of generosity! As we work towards creating the best version of our world, we’re making sure it’s one where every North Korean is free.

Your support will allow us to continue investing in North Korean agents of change - people like Seohyun - who are leading this movement and transforming one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Through access to English language programs, mentorship, scholarships, and more, you can help us support more North Korean refugees as they pursue their dreams and impact this issue.

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