North Korea

North Korean escapees learn about family deaths months later


Pandemic and crackdown on Chinese cell phone brokers has created long periods of silence

North Korean escapees learn about family deaths months later

With the border virtually sealed and communication difficult, North Korean escapees must hope for the best for the family members they left behind. Pictured: A North Korean is seen through barbed wire in the Demilitarized Zone.

Earlier this month, news that one of her family members in North Korea had died reached escapee Park So-yeon months after it had happened.

Park, who had resettled in the South several years ago, had heard only sporadically from her family north of the border in the past three years since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As news of food shortages, starvation and rumblings of another famine trickled out of the North, she could only hope for the best, so she was crushed when she learned of her loved one’s passing.

“A lot of times, we find out about deaths a long time after they happened,” Park – a pseudonym to protect her identity – told RFA’s Korean Service. “I couldn’t believe the news. I still feel like it was not real.”

Most of the time, such news comes via a North Korean broker who owns a Chinese cell phone and can make calls close to the border by using Chinese relay towers. 

But recently, a clampdown by authorities on such cell phone brokers has led to reduced communication and long periods of silence, said Ji Seong-ho, an escapee who resettled in the South and was elected a lawmaker in 2020.

“It is not easy to get news of a death right away because of the situation” in North Korea, Ji said. “So, when you find out … six months or a year later, the heart breaks and it hurts more.”

Over the past year, many escapees who live in the South have been getting belated news that their relatives in the North have passed away, Seo Jae-Pyoung, secretary general of the Seoul-based Association of the North Korean Defectors, told RFA.

“Parents came to South Korea and settled here, but there are many cases in which their children died in North Korea,” said Seo. “The number of deaths has increased by two or three per neighborhood watch unit,” the typical community-level unit that meets once per week in North Korea. 

“There are many people who could not prepare firewood during the winter, so their bodies became cold and their immunity decreased because they also were not eating well,” Seo said. “They were so vulnerable.”

Many North Korean escapees fall into depression upon learning of their family members’ death, Kim Dan Geum, another escapee who settled in the South, told RFA.

“I see many North Korean defectors suffering from depression, thinking about their families they left behind in North Korea,” said Kim. “They hear the news that their family members have died of starvation.” 

Sending money – and fraud

The pandemic and crackdown on cell phone brokers has also made it difficult to send money to struggling family members in the North. 

Brokers can arrange for money sent from South Korea to an intermediary in China to be delivered to intended recipients in North Korea, after taking a percentage for their services.

Authorities have increased punishments not only on the families of escapees who try to contact their family members in the South, they are also punishing brokers.

With each broker that the government punishes, families who had been using that particular broker lose contact with their escapee family members. They will have to find new brokers to try to get in contact with their relatives.

Another problem that has risen out of the crackdown  is that sometimes escapees in the South are contacted by people posing as brokers, saying they have a message from the family requesting money.

“They say, ‘The family will starve to death if you don’t send the money.’ But we can’t confirm whether that’s true or not. There is no way to confirm,” said Kim.

She said that brokers try to emotionally manipulate escapees in the South by describing hardships suffered by North Koreans, but when they send money, there is no way to know if it was delivered or if the broker kept it for himself. 

“One lady I know said she keeps sending money, and the broker plays for her the recorded voices of the family saying ‘I got the money,’ or ‘I did not get the money,’” said Kim.

Seo said that there are frequent cases of brokers exploiting the situation in which direct communication with family members is impossible.

“Border control is now strict, so people from other provinces cannot get near the border. Still, brokers tell you to send money because they can deliver it,” he said. 

“I myself got a call yesterday. The broker said my nephew’s name and told me to send money for him,” Seo said. “I can’t connect with my nephew so I can’t just keep sending money. I can’t even check whether the money I sent actually got to him or not.”

Seo said that the defectors association has posted warnings on its website urging escapees to be careful when trying to remit money to their relatives in the North, because of the large number of reported fraud cases since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

“Remittance brokers are using various fraudulent methods to scam senders by pretending that money has been delivered to their families, taking advantage of the difficulty of access to border areas due to the recent coronavirus crisis,” the warning read.

The inability to discern between actual requests for money and fraudulent ones can be deadly for people living in the North, Seo said.

“A defector I know had a younger brother living in Hyeryong, who called her in April last year requesting money, so she sent it to him. Two months later he called again … saying he had [liver disease],” said Seo. 

“The sister said, ‘You don’t even drink alcohol. Don’t lie,’ and she hung up on him. A few months later news came that her younger brother had died. She began to wail, because what her brother said was true.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *