North Korean woman sentenced to 3 years for calling South Korea

A broker who arranged the call was also punished.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2023.10.10
North Korean woman sentenced to 3 years for calling South Korea Women who have escaped from North Korea talk at a public telephone booth at the Hanawon center, the state-run official temporary base for escapees from the North, in South Korea.
Truth Leem/Reuters file photo

North Korea has sentenced a woman to three years in prison for talking on the phone to her daughter who had escaped the country and resettled in South Korea, sources in the North told Radio Free Asia.

Another woman, who brokered the mother-daughter phone call, got a year of forced labor and her family exiled to the remote North Korean countryside.

North Korea treats people who escape the country as traitors, and since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, authorities have been more intensely cracking down on people who access the Chinese cellular networks in the northern border region to contact escapees.

“Recently two women who called South Korea over the phone were punished,” a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“One is a mother from Paegam county who received money after talking on the phone with her daughter who settled in South Korea,” he said. “The other woman is the broker from Hyesan who helped this.”

Brokers earn money by selling calls on their Chinese cell phones. Together with the escapee’s family member, they will travel into nearby mountains to an area within range of cellular towers on the Chinese side of the border.

They pull in much more by facilitating money transfers. People in the South remit funds to a Chinese account, then a broker will arrange for it to be brought into China by smugglers or Chinese residents of North Korea. After taking a hefty cut, the remainder is given to the relative in North Korea. 

Caught descending mountain

The two women were caught by a social security agent when they were coming down from a phone call in the mountains, the resident said. “They were … interrogated for over a month.”

According to the resident, the agent was suspicious because the women were not dressed like people who typically go into the mountains to collect firewood, or tend to crops. The agent searched them and found a Chinese mobile phone, then arrested them.

The authorities made the details of the case public.

“The woman in her 60s received three years in prison for receiving money from her daughter, who had rebelled against her country and fled to South Korea,” the resident said. “The woman who helped her call her daughter was also punished with one year of short-term disciplinary labor and deportation of her family to a rural area.”

During the investigation, it was determined that the woman received money from her daughter in the amounts of 12,000 yuan (US$1,600) last year and 7,000 yuan ($960) this year, the resident said.  

In years past, the broker’s fee was typically around 30% of the total amount remitted, but border closures and increased surveillance of the area during and after the pandemic have made smuggling more difficult, so now brokers take around half.

The broker was able to use her wealth and connections to receive a lighter sentence than her client, even though they should receive similar punishment, another Ryanggang resident told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“It seems that the broker, who was living in Hyesan, had power and connections and bribed a lot,” the second resident said, adding that the customer’s sentence was too harsh.

“No matter how much South Korea is an enemy country, three years in prison for taking money from your own daughter is too much,” he said. “Aren’t parents able to talk to their children who are far away? … [Can’t] they make phone calls and receive money sent by their children out of concern, especially at a time when they are having a hard time making a living?”

 North Korea should soften its stance on remittances from abroad, he said.

“There are quite a few people who escaped to other countries after the Arduous March,” the second resident said, referring to the 1994-1998 famine that killed hundreds of thousands North Koreans – or more than a million by some estimates.

“If North Korea were to make it legal to receive money sent from South Korea or the United States, the money would circulate domestically and help not only [escapees’] families but also many other people,” the second resident said. “However, the authorities are focused on prevention and punishment.”

A 2019 survey of 431 North Korean escapees who resettled in South Korea, conducted by the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, showed that 61.3% of the respondents had sent money to their relatives in North Korea.

The average amount per remittance was 1.61 million won, which at the time was about  $1,340. 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.