Authorities in North Korea have unexpectedly released several brokers who facilitate remittance payments from abroad after a crackdown on illegal phone use last month, letting the well-connected brokers off lightly despite government warnings that violators would be severely punished with no exceptions, sources told RFA.
North Korea allows domestic cellphones, but North Korean smartphones all run an application called “Red Flag” that keeps a log of webpages visited by users and randomly takes screenshots. These can be viewed, but not deleted with another app called “Trace Viewer.”
To avoid monitoring and to reach the outside world, people along North Korea’s border rely on smuggled Chinese cellphones that can access the Chinese mobile network. The illegal phones are a necessity for the families of refugees to keep in contact with loved ones who have left the country.
The brokers typically use the phones to coordinate transfers of money between North Korean refugees in South Korea and their families remaining in the North, usually through China. According figures from the South Korean Ministry of Unification, tens of millions of dollars are sent into North Korea this way each year.
After catching a large number of illegal phone users, authorities declared they would all face harsh punishment.
But sources in the country told RFA’s Korean Service that among approximately 10 phone brokers arrested in the area of Hyesan city, three were released this month with the relatively light sentence of reeducation.
“They were classified as subject to reeducation, and released early at the beginning of this month. Other people, including the family members of North Korean defectors, are still being held,” a resident of Ryanggang province told RFA July 3.
“Only a few of the phone brokers have been released and the residents are arguing back and forth over what the reason for the release could be,” the source said.
The source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, identified by surname one of the brokers caught in the crackdown.
“Kim, a man in his 40s living in Yeokjeon-dong, Hyesan city, made money by being an illegal phone broker for a long time, but he was caught in a joint crackdown by the Provincial Security Department and the police last month,” the source said.
“The law enforcement authorities threatened that if caught, the brokers would not be released even if they bribed them as usual. But somehow they were able to send some of the brokers to reeducation and released them,” the source said.
The source said that in the recent crackdown 10 phone brokers from Hyesan were arrested, “but only two or three people, including the man named Kim, were released for reeducation.”
According to the source, those released had been caught for the same infraction before.
“All of them are known to have given a large amount of money to the provincial investigation agency in exchange for their release [from previous arrests],” the source said.
“Even though the authorities said they would punish them with no exception, people suspect that bribery may have worked this time again,” the source said. RFA was unable to confirm if the brokers had again offered bribes.
A resident of neighboring North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA that the crackdown and suspicious releases had happened there as well, raising the same bribery suspicions.
“Two of the residents who were arrested last month in a crackdown on money transfer brokers and illegal phone users were released a few days ago,” the second source said.
“A 35-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Park, and a man in his 40s, were released after being classified for reeducation,” the second source added.
The second source said the brokers’ wealth was a major factor in securing their releases.
“It is difficult for law enforcement to punish the rich brokers,” the North Hamgyong source said.
“Law enforcement agencies also need operating funds and must set aside some funds to the party, and high-ranking officials need their cut, too, to support their lifestyles,” the second source said.
“If they punish [the brokers] as part of the crackdown, where would such funds come from?” the second source said.
“After all these crackdowns and warnings of severe punishment, it is only the poor and powerless residents that are subject to said punishment,” said the second source.
“Those who have a lot of money always have someone who has their back, so they can get away with only being subject to reeducation,” the second source said.
“Ordinary people who have no cash to pay to the authorities have no choice but to go through all the hardships at correctional camps, so they are mortified and resentful, but alas, it is our reality.”
While there is no way to know exactly how many illegal phone users there are in North Korea, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which interviewed 414 North Koreans in the South reported that 47 percent of them were in constant contact with their families in the North in 2018. Of those, about 93 percent said they called their families on the phone.
In the same survey 62 percent said they had sent money to North Korea. Based on their answers, the database center estimated that refugees in the South who send money to North Korea do it about twice per year, sending around 2.7 million South Korean won (U.S. $2,260) each time.
Each time they had to pay an average broker fee of almost 30 percent.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 32,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, including 1,047 last year.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.