“It’s like a spy movie, and people are putting their lives at risk.”says Hwang Ji-sung, a South Korean who has acted as an intermediary helping North Korean defectors send much-needed money back home for more than a decade.
Years ago, North Koreans coined the term “Hallasan root” for people who receive help from defectors in the South, Hwang says.
Hallasan refers to Mount Halla, a famous volcano on the picturesque island of Jeju in South Korea.
“A person from the Hallasan family is considered the most desirable spouse, even more so than Communist Party members,” he says.
A 2023 survey conducted by the North Korean Human Rights Database Center, which interviewed nearly 400 North Korean defectors, found that around 63% had sent money to families in the North.
But now, with increasing repression from both North and South, the remittance of money from the South to the North is increasingly threatened.
It is already a complex and difficult task, requiring a hidden network of intermediaries and couriers spread across South Korea, China and North Korea.
Secret calls with smuggled Chinese phones are made in remote locations. Codenames are used.
Since 2020, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un intensified the crackdown on intermediaries to stop the flow of money and the “reactionary ideology and culture” of South Korea.
They risk being sent to the country’s dreaded political prison camps, known as kwan-li-sowhere hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have died.
“The number of intermediaries in North Korea has dropped by more than 70% compared to a few years ago,” says Joo Soo-yeon, Hwang’s wife. She also acts as an intermediary.
South Korea also bans such transfers, but authorities have let it slide in the past. Now that is changing.
Last April, Hwang and Joo’s home in Gyeonggi province – which is close to Seoul – was raided by four police officers, who accused her of violating the foreign exchange transaction law.
At least seven other intermediaries involved in sending money are also under investigation.
Police did not respond to the BBC about Joo’s case.
South Korean authorities told Hwang that any money transfer to North Korea must be carried out through a “legitimate bank.”
“If there is one, let me know!” he said, adding that there is no institution that can legally receive money in North Korea, as the two Koreas are still technically at war.
Inter-Korean relations have worsened since the North scrapped a joint liaison office with the South in 2020. Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that it was no longer possible to achieve reunification with the South – an objective stated in the constitution.
It all starts with a phone call between defectors in the South and their families in the North – made possible by Chinese phones smuggled into border provinces and which can access Chinese telecommunications networks.
The calls are facilitated by intermediaries in North Korea, who have to travel long distances and sometimes even climb mountains to make such calls.
After hours of waiting, the call is completed and the defector will settle the amount with the families. But the conversation has to be quick to avoid surveillance by the Ministry of State Security.
The defector then makes a deposit into a Chinese account through intermediaries in South Korea. This is also fraught with risk, as China also closely monitors the flow of foreign currency.
It is the role of Chinese intermediaries to bring the money to North Korea.
The borders are relatively porous, as China is North Korea’s most important ally. Remittances from defectors are sometimes disguised as transactions between Chinese and North Korean companies.
Several couriers work in North Korea to deliver money to families.
“The people handing over the money don’t know each other and nor should they, because their lives are at stake,” says Kim Jin-seok, who worked as a courier in North Korea before fleeing the country in 2013.
Intermediaries must use pseudonyms and develop codes to signal when it will be safe for families to receive funds.
Hwang, who has around 800 clients, says he has seen cases of families rejecting the money.
“They were afraid that it might be a trap set by the security police and said things like: ‘We will not accept money from traitors’.”
Once the money is delivered, the intermediaries receive around 50%.
“North Korean intermediaries risk their lives to earn 500,000 to 600,000 won per transfer,” says Hwang — the amount is equivalent to around R$2,000.
“Nowadays, if you are arrested by a security agent and convicted, could face 15 years in prison. If you are convicted of espionage, you will be sent to a kwan-li-so.”
Hwang shows us testimonies from North Koreans who received money through their business.
“I was hungry every day and ate grass,” cries a lady in one of them, her hands swollen from searching for food in the forest.
In the same video, another woman says: “It’s so difficult here, I want to thank you 100 times.”
Joo says her heart breaks every time she sees these videos.
“Some defectors have left their parents and children behind. They simply want to ensure that their families in North Korea will survive so that they can one day be reunited.”
She says one million won is enough to feed a family of three for a year in the North.
It’s unclear why South Korea began cracking down on intermediaries, but lawyer Park Won-yeon, who has provided legal support to defectors, believes overzealousness may be a factor, as the power to investigate National security cases, such as espionage, were transferred to police from the National Intelligence Service this year.
“If the police cannot prove the espionage allegations, they will prosecute them under the Foreign Exchange Transactions Act,” he says.
Under increasing pressure from both governments, this lifeline for the families of North Korean defectors could be cut off.
Hwang is ready to take his wife’s case all the way to the Supreme Court if she is convicted. He believes that defectors’ remittances are important beyond their financial value.
“Along with the money also comes the signal that the South is prosperous and rich. This is what Kim Jong-un is afraid of.”
Kim Jin-seok believes that defectors like him will not stop sending money to loved ones in their home country, even though authorities on both sides want to stop them. He says he will personally travel to China to deliver the money if necessary.
“I run the risk of never seeing my children again, but at least they will have a good life,” he says.
“We will send the money any way we can, no matter what.”
He now works as a truck driver in South Korea and sleeps in the truck five days a week.
He is saving as much as possible so he can send four million won to his wife and two children in the North every year. And it plays an audio message from your family over and over again.
One of his sons says, “How are you, Dad? How much have you suffered? Our hardships are nothing compared to yours.”
Kim Jin-seok was given a pseudonym for security reasons.