North Korean defectors here are strongly opposing a government plan to require them to gain approval before making remittances to relatives in the cash-strapped state.
They say that the approval process could put them and their loved ones in the North in dangerous situations and make brokers demand more money for delivering funds.
They also say that since their remittances are made through “complicated multi-layered” procedures, it would be difficult to detect those sending money without approval.
On Tuesday, the Unification Ministry put on public notice a revision bill mandating defectors to obtain approval when remitting more than a certain amount of money, with the cut-off figure yet to be set. Officials said the revision is aimed at “securing transparency in inter-Korean exchanges.”
“We have been scrimping on food, clothes and others to send some of the hard-earned money ― at most 1 million won ($917) ― to help our family, not the North Korean regime. The approval system is wrong,” a 43-year-old North Korean defector, who has taken asylum here since 1997, told The Korea Herald, declining to be named.
“Our remittances have been transparently made and we always check whether our relatives have received the money by talking directly to them by cellphone. Through the talks, albeit brief, defectors tell them the truth about Korean society and help enlighten them and bring about change there.”
He also pointed out that the planned system may not be effective.
“All these have so far taken place secretly. Who would ever like to willingly tell the authorities about their remittances at the risk of revealing their identities and those of their relatives in the North? One out of 10 may be willing,” he said.
A Unification Ministry official said that the government will carry out the approval system after taking into account opinions from the defectors and experts.
“There has been controversy over the legitimacy of their remittances, which has stemmed from the absence of government procedures over them. The system is aimed at systemizing their sending of the money to the North,” the official said.
“We will consider various opinions including those regarding the amount of money for which they should secure approval and measures to protect their family in the North.”
North Korean defectors usually send their money through ethnic Chinese people here, who ask their Chinese relatives or acquaintances inside the North or near the North Korea-China border to deliver the money. The brokers are known to take 30 percent of the total remittances.
According to a survey by a private Seoul-based group, which was released early this year, nearly half of North Korean defectors here have sent money to their families in the North.
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 survey was conducted on 396 North Korean defectors residing in the South, aged 15 or older, from Dec. 14-31 last year.
Seoul officials estimate that North Korean defectors’ annual remittances amount to $10 million.
Some people say the remittances could stimulate North Koreans’ longing for 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 number of North Korean defectors living here stands at 21,294 as of April. It is expected to rise as food shortages and oppression continue in the reclusive state.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)