North Korea Arrests Remittance Broker on ‘Espionage’ Charges

nk-smartphone-crop.jpg In a file photo, a man uses his smartphone in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Authorities in North Korea have arrested a phone broker on charges of espionage, saying the man shared information about domestic conditions in the reclusive country while helping a North Korean refugee in South Korea communicate with family members in the North, sources told RFA.

The accused, a resident of North Hamgyong province on the Chinese border, was caught after printing photos taken by the refugee in South Korea at a local photo studio.

Phone brokers in North Korea’s border region earn money using mobile phones connected with the Chinese cellular network to facilitate communications and remittances between people who have escaped North Korea and their relatives still living there.  They shuttle the remittances sent to China into to North Korea, charging high fees to get the money to intended recipients.

Communication with the outside world is illegal in North Korea, but has been tolerated by authorities, who often demand bribes from brokers.

“In mid-August, a resident of Onsong county, North Hamgyong province was arrested on suspicion of espionage when a secret service agent of the local security department learned he had printed photos from South Korea at a local photo studio,” a source at a law enforcement agency in North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

The source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, declined to elaborate on the location of the photo studio to protect the identity of the arrested individual.

“He confessed while he was being questioned by the provincial security department. He said he had made a living by bringing residents from inland areas of the country to the border with China over a period of several years, so they could make phone and video calls to members of their families who had escaped to South Korea or China,” the source said.

Communications trade

Brokers living near the Sino-Korean border usually conduct business using illegal mobile phones that can connect to the Chinese network across the border. According to the source, authorities found two Chinese phones in the man’s house.

“The provincial security department secured all the text messages he had sent and received over WeChat,” said the source.

“They found that he had been sending out information about the current situation in North Korea very frequently. So, the provincial security authorities are now saying that the money transfer was merely a cover and that he actually was a spy that provided information to South Korea,” the source said.

“It’s extremely likely that he will be executed by firing squad or sent to a political prison camp,” the source said.

Another source, a resident of the province, confirmed the arrest to RFA, saying provincial security agents led away the espionage suspect in handcuffs and put him into a car.

“He had received photos of a North Korean refugee living in South Korea on his Chinese mobile phone and had printed them at a local photo studio. A local resident working as a security agent reported it, so that’s why they arrested him,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“But since he exchanged messages about the domestic situation on his Chinese mobile phone, they now have evidence of espionage activities,” said the source.

Everyone a spy

The second source questioned how someone that seemed so ordinary could possibly know any national secrets, but the charges are a life or death risk that all phone brokers take.

“Many of the residents living in the border areas of North Korea will have family members or relatives in China or South Korea. These days, if you see the security authorities' behavior toward the residents of the border area, it’s like they are just accusing everyone of espionage.”

The source said that espionage charges are on the rise because authorities want to scare the public to discourage them from complaining about harsh living situations brought on by the double squeeze of U.N. and U.S. sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the closure of the border and shutdown of all trade with China.

A North Korean refugee who settled in South Korea in 2019 told RFA Thursday that authorities often hit residents of the border region with espionage charges.

“Many people in North Korea’s border areas make a living by contacting China or South Korea. They are accused of being spies and are subjected to misfortune,” the refugee said.

“North Koreans don’t want anything as grand as what people living in the free world enjoy every day. We cannot help but ask the North Korean regime if it has the right to oppress its people, who only long to satisfy their simple desire to eat three meals a day and sleep in a warm bed.”

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 Sewon Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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