There are 15,000 North Korean refugees settled in South Korea, and the number who remit money to their families in the North is rising. (And to that should be added 20,000-30,000 of the 100,000 North Koreans estimated to live in China.)
Remittance routes are clandestine. Money is remitted to a Chinese broker, who contacts another in North Korea, who pays the recipient with his own money and settles the account with the Chinese broker later, leaving no documented trail.
Keeping in mind that an avaerage salary for a North Korean worker is between W2,500 and 3,000, $1,000 is the equivalent of 100 years' worth of earnings and buys two apartments in places like Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province, or Hamhung, South Hamgyeong Province.
"In the past, strict punishment of the families of refugees under a guilt-by-association system was effective as a means of discouraging escape,” one refugee says. "Now, leaving them alone helps maintain the system. If neighbors are expelled on account of being families of escapees, rumors make everyone uneasy."
If this happened to large numbers, it could increase unrest, leading to a mass exodus, and even the hard core of supporters could turn against the regime.
Accommodating more refugees and letting them support North Koreans in a natural way could prove genuine support to North Korea, refugees say, because the cash flowing into the lowest rung of society functions as a powerful force for opening.