North Korean Cops Go Undercover as Phone Brokers to Entrap Refugees’ Families

Authorities threaten to send families to prison camps if a member contacts relatives overseas.
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North Korean Cops Go Undercover as Phone Brokers to Entrap Refugees’ Families A man uses his phone as he sits along the Taedong river in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 12, 2018

North Korean agents are going undercover as phone brokers to entrap citizens attempting to contact overseas relatives for money to cope with a worsening food shortage and an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the country told RFA.

Phone brokers charge money for using Chinese cell phones to tap the mobile network in China to provide a channel for North Koreans who have escaped the country to send money and information to their families back home.

But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020, Pyongyang has been cracking down on its citizens’ contact with people outside the country, especially in the border regions, where Chinese cellular networks are accessible.

The crackdown coincided with the closure of the Sino-Korean border and the suspension of all trade to stop the spread of the virus into North Korea, a move that devastated the North Korean economy and caused shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs.

RFA reported last month that the dire food situation made escapees’ families and the phone brokers themselves desperate enough to assume the heightened risk of using that method to move money.

Now families in North Korea trying to contact overseas relatives must also be careful when working with a broker, because some could actually be police.

“As the refugees’ families resume their connection with overseas family members and the number of telephone brokers continues to increase, law enforcement is using a mean method of contacting North Korean refugees’ families by disguising security agents or police officers as phone brokers,” a law enforcement source from the city of Hoeryong in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA.

“But now that the residents are aware of the authorities’ cunning and mean strategy, the families are extremely careful not to speak to unknown brokers,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The source said that at the beginning of the pandemic, most families of escapees cut off contact with them because the government had stepped up surveillance and punishments.

“They were enduring economic hardship with all their might, but they are no longer able to. So more and more of them are trying to contact their overseas relatives again, saying that dying of hunger is no better than dying from harsh punishment,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Law enforcement is telling the residents that they will be sent to political prison camps immediately if they discover any contact with their family outside the country, but if they voluntarily confess that they’ve been in contact, they will be treated leniently,” the source said.

A resident of nearby Musan county said police were mixing threats and ruses to catch residents trying to reach their relatives overseas.

“They visit the families of escapees and trick them into giving them detailed information, saying they will help them connect with their loved ones,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“The State Security Department and the Police Department are telling refugees’ families to immediately alert the authorities if they receive any contact from overseas, or else they and the rest of the family will be arrested as political criminals,” the second source said.

“Even so, residents who are in desperate need of help from their escapee relatives are able to use certain words, numbers or special expressions as code to verify who is a real broker and who is a police officer faking it,” said the second source.

The second source said that despite all the threats from law enforcement, most families with relatives abroad find ways to keep in touch with the outside world.

“The threats presented by the living difficulties happening here right now far outweigh any threats of surveillance by the State Security Department.”

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 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, more than 33,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, though only 229 entered the South last year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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