Defectors matter for the North Korean economy

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few days, the North Korean government has staged protests against the defector leaflets that have caused so much rumble lately. Or, perhaps more accurately, have been used as a convenient excuse for the North Korean government to ratchet things up. In any case. It need hardly be mentioned that these so-called protests are not necessarily reflective of any broader sentiments among the general public.

But this Radio Free Asia article highlights an interesting point, namely that for many North Koreans, remittances from family members abroad constitutes a significant source of income. It’s not really just a matter of individual families, either. Sums are high enough that they likely make a not insignificant contribution to the national economy as a whole. Remittances play a significant role for the economy in several impoverished countries, and channeled the right way, they could for economic development in North Korea too.

Some in the North in fact envy families with members in the South because they send cash remittances back home, sources in the country said.

“Even though the party is organizing a series of mass rallies to denounce the defectors, the people are envious of the defectors’ families,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service recently.

“Residents are being made to shout out slogans to condemn the defectors, but after the rally is over it sure is hard to find anyone saying bad things about defectors on their own,” the source said.

“This is because the families around us [with a member who] defected are living well despite the difficulties of the national economy,” the source added.

Most of those who send balloons to the North are called “defectors” in both Koreas, who remain in a formal state of war long after the Cold War ended elsewhere.

But rights groups draw a distinction between defectors, who fled the North as government or military officials, and refugees — ordinary citizens who escaped poverty or hunger in the region’s poorest country.

North Korea’s belligerent turn this month is seen by Pyongyang watchers as calculated to extract diplomatic or economic concessions from Seoul and Washington in a well-established pattern of crisis escalation.

Smuggling cash through China

However the international reaction plays out, inside the country, the government’s break with a longstanding policy of ignoring or playing down discussion of exiles in the South is making more ordinary North Koreans think about them.

“The more the party strengthens class-consciousness education against defectors and denounces them, the more that residents show the exact opposite reaction,” another source, a resident of Ryanggang province who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.

“They continue to hold rallies against defectors, so there is a growing interest in the freedom enjoyed by the defectors who have settled in South Korea,” the second source said.

The exiles send money to their relatives in the North through intermediaries in China, who take a cut for arranging the smuggling of cash, usually Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, across the porous Sino-North Korean border.

North Korean refugees in South Korea face social discrimination and many struggle economically as they are less competitive in South Korea’s cutthroat job market. But 62 percent of them sent money to friends and relatives in the North in 2018, according to a survey by a rights group.

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which interviewed 414 North Koreans in the South, found most forwarded $500-2,000 a year – significant sums where an official salary is worth about $5 a month.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 32,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, including 1,047 last year.

The North Hamgyong source said that residents are complaining about having to attend rallies denouncing defectors.

“The people gripe about fatigue and they are discontent with the authorities’ ongoing rallies.

“They are critical of the authorities for focusing only on promoting the greatness of the Highest Dignity and creating a crisis against South Korea without solving the food problem that has befallen many residents at this difficult time,” the source said.  The Highest Dignity is an honorific term for Kim Jong Un.

(Source: Jieun Kim, Leejin Jun, Eugene Whong, “Official North Korean Fury at Defectors Belies Popular Envy of Remittances From Exiles,” Radio Free Asia, June 19th, 2020.)

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