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Defectors’ remittances to N. Korea down 18% in 2021 amid pandemic: NGO

Number of defectors contacting their families fell by almost a third

Demilitarized Zone (Flicker, Photo by Bryan Dorrough)
Demilitarized Zone (Flicker, Photo by Bryan Dorrough)
Remittances from North Korean defectors to their families living across the inter-Korean border fell by 18.2 percent while Pyongyang has maintained a border lockdown for two years and strengthened controls over its society, Seoul-based nongovernmental organizations said in a joint report.

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and North Korea Social Research conducted a mixed in-person, online, and telephone survey of 407 North Korean defectors living in South Korea between November and December this year.

The poll results showed that 20.9 percent sent money back to their families and relatives in North Korea this year, which was a 5.7 percentage-point decrease from 2020, when Pyongyang started to strengthen lockdown and control measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Total remittances reached 245.2 million won ($207,000) this year, but this was down from 300 million won in 2020 and 314 million won in 2019.

This year, North Korean defectors also sent money an average of 1.51 times to their families. The average amount remitted each time was 2.09 million won.

More importantly, the decline in remittances would aggravate North Korean people’s suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, given that 88.2 percent of defectors said transferred funds were used for the living expenses of their families and relatives in North Korea.

According to the survey, one of the major reasons for the rapid decline in remittances was that defectors lost contact with their families in North Korea due to Pyongyang’s move to impose a yearslong border lockdown and strengthen control over the society with the justification of preventing COVID-19 infections.

Under the situation, North Korean defectors struggled to find ways to get in touch with their families and relatives and request brokers to send remittances.

Some 32.6 percent of the respondents chose “other options” when asked why they did not send money back home, and most of them cited the severance of communication channels with their families as the reason.

Another major reason was the defectors’ poor economic situation. Twenty-eight percent said they could not afford to remit money to North Korea.

But unlike other media reports, the survey outcomes suggested that commission for transferring money through brokers remained similar to the previous years. 

Some 88 percent of respondents said brokers took commissions of between 20 and 40 percent this year, although commissions differed depending on region, way of transferring money, and the broker.

Reports from media including the Associated Press have suggested brokers have been collecting higher fees since the pandemic began.

Also, some 68.1 percent believed that their remittances would affect North Korean society. 

Among them, 27.8 percent said North Korean recipients would yearn for South Korean society, 22.9 percent agreed that money transfers would invigorate the private economy, while 14.3 percent answered that remittances would contribute to encouraging them to defect to South Korea increasing their families’ awareness.

During the pandemic, the number of North Korean defectors who continued to contact their families fell by almost a third this year. According to the poll, only 13.8 percent of defector respondents got in touch with families this year. 

The defectors mainly asked about their families’ health and safety and confirmed the receipt of remittances. But the figure was a sharp decline in comparison to the 38.6 percent last year.

Phone calls remained the most frequently used means of communication, accounting for 85.7 percent. Some 3.6 percent said they still kept up mail correspondence with their families in North Korea.

Since 2005, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights has conducted the “Social and Economic Integration of North Korean Defectors Survey” annually and provides information on defectors’ remittances, employment, and economic activities.

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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