Smuggled phones help N. Korea defectors send money

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Smuggled phones help N. Korea defectors send money
Escaped prisoner from North Korean Internment Camp 14 Shin Dong-Hyuk speaks during a conversation on 'America's Role in Promoting Democracy and Human Rights ' at the 2012 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum in Washington on November 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: North Korea refugee and human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk speaks during a rally outside the White House while demonstrationg for human rights in North Korea July 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. In 2005, Shin, 30, was the first person to have escaped from a 'total-control zone' grade internment camp, called Camp #14, in North Korea and live to tell about the experience. Shin now lives in South Korea and works to raise awareness about North Korean internment and concentration camps. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In this Sept. 21, 2014 photo, North Korean defector Choi Jung-hoon, center, listens as North Korean democracy activist Park Sang-hak, right, speaks before they release balloons carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea. One recent survey by a Seoul civic group of about 400 defectors suggested that one in every two defector families in the South send home money. “Even though we have very small incomes here, we still eat rice at every meal,” Choi said. “If we don’t buy new clothes, we can save some money to send to our family members in the North. That’s a lot of money for them.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joo)
In this Sept. 21, 2014 photo, North Korean defectors prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea. One recent survey by a Seoul civic group of about 400 defectors suggested that one in every two defector families in the South send home money, mostly between 500,000 won ($470) and 3 million won ($2,820) per year. They do this even though most defectors struggle to make a living in the highly competitive, well-educated South: Their average monthly wage is about 1.4 million won ($1,320), about half the pay of an average South Korean worker. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joo)
In this Sept. 21, 2014 photo, North Korean defectors prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea. The writing on the balloons and banners reads "End the world's worst three generation dictatorship and Down with Kim Jong Un." One recent survey by a Seoul civic group of about 400 defectors suggested that one in every two defector families in the South send home money, mostly between 500,000 won ($470) and 3 million won ($2,820) per year. They do this even though most defectors struggle to make a living in the highly competitive, well-educated South: Their average monthly wage is about 1.4 million won ($1,320), about half the pay of an average South Korean worker. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Former North Korean defectors prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies, during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. The writing on the balloons and banner reads " Down with Kim Jong Un." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Former North Korean defectors release balloons carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, in South Korea, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Former North Korean defectors release balloons carrying leaflets and banners condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government's policies during a rally against North Korea in Paju, near the border with North Korea, in South Korea, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
North Korean defectors carry to release a balloon to let it fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies during a rally against the North's recent threat at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
North Korean defectors and South Korean activists prepare to release balloons to let them fly to the North, carrying chocolate pies and cookies during a rally against the North's recent threat at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, center, cheers with North Korean defectors, refugees and their family members during a ceremony to celebrating the Lunar New Year at the Imjingak Pavilion, near the border village of Panmunjom, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. South Korea on Monday proposed that the rival Koreas restart arranging reunions next month for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. But still, the North Korea kept silent on South Korea's offer. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
This is a undated photo of Hwang Jang Yop, a close confident of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, and his wife, Park Seung Ok, wearing glass and his son Hwang Kyung Mu, left, and son's wife, standing. Hwang is seeking asylum at Beijing's, South Korean Consulate. In a statement released by the South Koreans, Hwang said he decided to defect to help reconcile the two Koreas. (AP Photo/Naewoi Newspaper)
A North Korean defector burns an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a North Korean flag during a rally to mark the the third anniversary of North Korea’s artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong island, in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Four people, including two marines and two civilians, were killed by North Korea's attack. The banner read: "Hang Kim Jong Un, Strike Pyongyang and Get rid of pro-North ." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this Nov. 9, 2013 photo, South Korean Kim Tae-hoon, center, performs with adolescent North Korean defectors during their concert "With Friend" at Mapo Art Center in Seoul, South Korea. Kim is rearing nine boys - all defectors from North Korea. Kim has given them their first real experience of family. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Members of Korea Freedom Federation shout slogans during a rally to demand the safety of North Korean defectors, in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. Nine North Korean defectors have been forced to return to their country from China after being captured in Laos, a South Korean news report said. The blue signs read" Stop forced repatriation of North Koreans" and the red read "The international community should protect North Korean defectors together! " (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A human right activist holds up a candle during a rally demanding the Laos government to guarantee the safety of nine of North Korean citizens who reportedly fled to Laos, in front of the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 31, 2013. Nine North Korean defectors have been forced to return to their country from China after being captured in Laos, a South Korean news report says. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A human right activist holds candles during a rally demanding the Laos government to guarantee the safety of nine of North Korean citizens who reportedly fled to Laos, in front of the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 31, 2013. Nine North Korean defectors have been forced to return to their country from China after being captured in Laos, a South Korean news report says. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this picture taken on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, an unidentified North Korean defector takes a nap near the paintings wishing two Koreas reunification during a break time at the Hangyeore middle-high school in Anseong, south of Seoul, South Korea. North Korea's prison population has swelled in recent years with those caught fleeing the country under a crackdown on defections by young leader Kim Jong Un, according to defectors living in South Korea and researchers who study Pyongyang's notorious network of labor camps and detention centers. The letters read "Reunification and A journey of thousand miles begins with one step." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Helium balloons carrying leaflets against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and their dictatorship, are launched by North Korean defectors and South Korean activists during an anti-North Korea rally denouncing North Korea's third nuclear test at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. They flew the 200,000 propaganda leaflets across the border to denounce the nuclear test and late leader Kim Jong Il's birthday on Saturday. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
North Korean defectors hold up candles while shouting slogans during a rally demanding the Chinese government to release North Korean refugees captured in China, in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 7, 2012. More than 100 North Korean defectors protested in anger over a treaty with Pyongyang that requires China to repatriate North Koreans who illegally enter the country. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A woman wipes her tears during a rally against Chinese government deporting captured North Korean defectors back to North Korea, near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
A North Korean defector wipes his eye during a rally against the Chinese government's arrest of North Korean refugees, near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. The protesters called for China not to send North Korean refugees back to their country, saying those refugees might be executed. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
South Korean activists and North Korean defectors shout slogans during a rally denouncing North Korea's genocide and crimes against humanity in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
A South Korean conservative activist with a stick beats a portrait of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son Kim Jon Un during a rally against the North's succession and mourning the late North Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. South Korea honored Hwang who once tutored autocratic leader Kim Jong Il at a funeral Thursday, praising his efforts to resolve rights abuses in his communist homeland. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A former North Korean defector walks past near a poster showing a North Korean child suffering from famine during a rally North Koreans' famine and human rights violation in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009. North Korean defectors and South Koreans gather to demand two Koreas' unification. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - A cellphone smuggled into North Korea helped Lee Seo Yeon take on two missions: one emotional, one financial. But at first, she feared there might be some mistake.

Listening in Seoul, the 40-year-old defector didn't recognize the voice on the other end. It was supposed to be a sister she hadn't spoken to since late 1998, when Lee left her family and waded through chilly, chest-deep waters to enter China.

Lee's sister is not much older than she is, but the voice on the phone "sounded like an old woman's," she said.

"But she remembered the scars I've got on my hip from when she asked me to sit on the edge of a chopstick for fun when we were little girls. She still remembers the name of my friend who lived next door. We talked about things like that, and I ended up crying."

Once Lee was certain she was talking to her sister, a broker took the phone on the North Korean end. Lee transferred 2 million won ($1,880) to a South Korean bank account belonging to a Korean-Chinese who was working with the broker, who confirmed the transfer and handed the phone back. The arrangement gave Lee's sister 70 percent of the money, with a 30 percent cut for the go-betweens.

Smuggled phones, combined with a resourceful underground network of brokers inside and outside North Korea, are allowing defectors not only to connect with long-lost relatives, but to send them desperately needed cash. The process remains risky, both for people within the arm of North Korean law and defectors worried about getting cheated.

The Chinese phones are illegal in North Korea, but cheap and widely available. Since late in the last decade, they have become an increasingly common way for many of the roughly 25,000 defectors in South Korea, and others hiding in China, to talk to and help relatives who stayed behind.

One recent survey by a Seoul civic group of about 400 defectors suggested that one in every two defector families in the South send home money, mostly between 500,000 won ($470) and 3 million won ($2,820) per year. They do this even though most defectors struggle to make a living in the highly competitive, well-educated South: Their average monthly wage is about 1.4 million won ($1,320), about half the pay of an average South Korean worker.

"Even though we have very small incomes here, we still eat rice at every meal," Seoul-based defector Choi Jung-hoon said. "If we don't buy new clothes, we can save some money to send to our family members in the North. That's a lot of money for them."

Reconnecting with family - to talk or send money - is not always simple. Lee said several other brokers failed to connect her with her sister, after she paid them 200,000 won ($190) just for a chance to talk to her.

Under one common method of transferring money, defectors use online banking sites to wire money to a bank account of a Korean-Chinese broker based in a Chinese town near the border with North Korea. The broker then takes out 20 to 30 percent of the money as commissions and asks a Korean-Chinese trader, who can freely cross the border into North Korea, to deliver the rest of the money to the defector's relatives.

The step of carrying money across the border is not always necessary when the go-betweens are involved in separate operations of smuggling Chinese goods for sale in North Korean markets. For example, a North Korean broker who owes money to a Chinese supplier could pay the debt by giving a defector's family cash, if the supplier is also involved in the transaction.

A transfer could require several go-betweens. A defector with no contacts in China may need help from another defector based in South Korea. And if a defector's family lives far from the Chinese border, a transfer will take more effort because North Korea restricts its citizens' movement and has poor transportation services.

Ahn Kyung-su, a South Korean human rights activist who has interviewed many North Korean defectors, said brokers frequently cheated defectors in the early days, but the business has since become more orderly and lucrative, with brokers more concerned about retaining customers.

At the same time, activists and defectors say North Korea has been cracking down, using equipment near the border to check for signals from Chinese mobile phones.

It's not known how many North Koreans have been arrested for getting money from their relatives in South Korea or communicating with them. But activists who have interviewed defectors say many North Koreans have avoided trouble by using some of the money to bribe local officials.

There are additional legal obstacles in South Korea, which restricts citizens' contact with the North but doesn't strictly apply such regulations to defectors.

The money can be a lifeline. South Korea's central bank estimates North Korea's gross national income per capita last year at about 1.4 million won ($1,320). The average South Korean income was 43 times higher. But cash also goes further in the North; analysts say that in rural areas, a house can cost as little as $3,000.

Lee wanted to do more than send cash. Her path to Seoul was long, with a repatriation to the North, an escape from a labor camp and two marriages, one in China and one in South Korea. But she never forgot the people she left behind.

"I miss my family members when I'm free or when I feel lonely. I think about them, forget about them but start thinking about them again," Lee said.

During that phone call in February, she learned that she was not the only one.

"My sister told me she had thought I would have either died or severed contact with her because I was living well somewhere," she said. "I let my husband talk to my sister, and he told her that I've missed and talked about her a lot, and then she cried and cried, saying I didn't forget her."

Lee said the phone talks were arranged after a fellow defector gave her the phone number of a man in North Korea who has an illegal Chinese mobile phone. After several phone talks with Lee, the man located her sister, took her to a border mountain where he could get Chinese mobile signals and called Lee. He immediately rang off to let Lee call back, apparently to save telephone charges.

The broker was supposed to arrange a second telephone conversation to let Lee's sister tell her she got the money. But all he ended up delivering was a voice recording; he said it was of Lee's sister confirming the money transfer, but there was too much static for Lee to tell.

"I told him I could not be sure it was my sister," she said. "But I told him I still appreciated that he arranged for me to talk to her."

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