A 43-year-old North Korean defector who has taken asylum here since 1997 believes that his and other defectors’ remittances to their relatives in the communist state help enlighten them about the free, democratic and capitalist South.
“When we make remittances to our loved ones in the North, we talk to them over the phone to ensure the money was properly sent. Through such talks, a wave of news about the capitalist society flows in and spreads there,” Kang sad, refusing to give his full name to protect his family remaining in the North.
“Such circulating news forms the public opinion there, enabling North Koreans to come to terms with how they have been fooled (by the regime). Some in the backwaters, of course, yearn for life in the South.”
The families in the cash-strapped state that have relatives in the South have now become the “tacit” subject of envy among those who do not have any, he said.
“As the families have been financially supported by the defectors here, they don’t have worries about where their food will come from tomorrow. Some even wish that they could have family members in the South,” he said.
“I annually send about 1 million won ($890) to my aunt ― enough for a family of five to live on in the North. We defectors send the money, not because we have much money, but because we know better than anyone else about their economic ordeals and hardships.”
Kang explained that North Korean defectors usually send their money through the ethnic Chinese here, who ask their Chinese relatives or acquaintances inside the North or near the North Korea-China border to deliver the money. The brokers take 30 percent of the total remittances, he said.
“As North Korean authorities are rarely harsh in dealing with Chinese nationals, the brokers with Chinese nationality can operate in the North to deliver the money from us here,” Kang said.
North Koreans prefer to receive the remittances in Chinese currency in the wake of the currency reform debacle in November 2009, Kang added.
“They want to receive the remittances in Chinese currency as it is safer and can be exchanged in the black markets there. They are reluctant to deal with North Korean currency as it could be reduced to just scraps of worthless paper,” Kang said.
According to a survey by a private Seoul-based group, nearly half of North Korean defectors here have sent money to their families in the North. More than 20,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The survey by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights found that 49.5 percent said they had sent money to their families in the North, while 46 percent said they had not and 4.5 percent said that they have no family there.
The findings confirmed the widespread rumors that North Korean defectors financially support their families in the North. The survey was conducted on 396 North Korean defectors residing in the South, aged 15 or older, from Dec. 14-31 last year.
Regarding the amounts sent, 31.7 percent of the respondents said that they sent between 510,000 won and 1 million won last year while 16.7 percent said that they sent 1.01 to 2 million won. Those who sent 2.01-3 million won made up 12.5 percent, while another 12.5 percent sent 5 million won or more.
Seoul officials assume that North Korean defectors’ annual remittances amount to $10 million. They are studying the possible ramifications of the remittances.
Some officials say the remittances could raise expectations among North Koreans about the affluent life south of the heavily fortified border.
Others, however, are concerned that the money could get into the wrong hands in the notoriously autocratic regime. The North has sought the development of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, which has put it under tough international sanctions.
The increased number of defectors means a rise in the amount of information delivered to the tightly controlled society, Kang said.
“One of the most serious headaches for the North Korean regime is to sort out those seeking to flee the country,” Kang said.
“The regime feels frightened as the increasing number of defectors talk to their relatives in the North regularly and inform them of how life is better in the capitalist society. The North is said to have installed a German-made high-tech machine designed to block all telephone signals.”
Kang added that sending money to starving citizens in the North should not be seen with suspicion as the practice could facilitate the spread of good information about the outside world and help speed up the process of reunification.
“Some say the remittances are illegal and we should be punished for sending money to our families. It does not go to the regime, but to the people and through the increased contacts, we could accelerate the unification process,” Kang said.
“Egyptian people were able to realize they had been living in a wrongful society and took to the streets for the successful protests because they had access to information from the outside world.”
Kang fled the North in 1991 due to an “unbearable ordeal” his entire family suffered after his grandfather became a political prisoner for openly criticizing textbooks containing “warped history.” He came here in 1997 after hiding in China for six years.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)