When Hong Gang-chul, a North Korean border guard, decided to escape his homeland in 2013, he knew his relationship with his family would never be the same.
Hong, who had helped other North Koreans escape, left the country in a hurry, believing he was wanted by North Korean authorities.
In doing so, he left two young daughters with their mother in North Korea. When he later began to arrange for them to defect, they refused.
A stocky, soft-spoken 48-year-old, Hong now lives in a simple apartment on the outskirts of Seoul, where he looks after his elderly mother, who also fled the North.
Like many defectors, Hong at times struggles to adjust to his new life in South Korea.
In North Korea, he manned a guard post along the demilitarized zone; now, he hosts a YouTube channel and works as a writer and commentator on North Korea issues.
When punditry doesn’t provide enough income, he takes work as a low-skilled laborer at construction sites — anything to scrape together enough to send his daughters money at least once a year.
“It’s impossible now for me to do the things a typical father would do for his children,” he told VOA in a matter-of-fact tone that only partly hides his distress. “The only thing I can do to look after them at this point is to send money.”
North Korean escapees have long sent funds to relatives back home using a network of brokers who smuggle cash and goods across what used to be a relatively porous border with China. The remittances can be a major source of income in North Korea, where the economy is tightly regulated.
Such money transfers have become trickier and much more expensive during the coronavirus pandemic. Many North Korean officials who used to look the other way, or who even accepted bribes to assist with smuggling, now report brokers to authorities, amid a wider crackdown on cross-border activity.
The increased risk has driven prices way up. Before the pandemic, remittance brokers would typically charge a commission of around 30%, but that figure is now closer to 50%, according to several Seoul-based defectors and activists.
“The money I send to North Korea has basically been cut in half,” said Hong, who also cited unstable foreign currency exchange rates in the North.
Some brokers charge as much as 70% commission, he added.
The remittance crackdown is one of many ways the coronavirus pandemic is severing the already fragile links between North Korean defectors and their families back home.
Since the pandemic began, North Korea has imposed one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, not only sealing its external borders but also expanding domestic travel restrictions.
As a result, many defectors, including Hong, haven’t heard from their families in months.
That is partly because brokers often help pass messages between separated family members, according to Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps North Korean defectors settle in the South.
Even for North Koreans who talk with the outside world via smuggled Chinese cellphones, communication has become much harder.
“Most of the time people are not making calls from inside their house. They are moving around to other places close to the border,” either to get a better signal or avoid state surveillance, Park said.
However, any movement is now difficult, especially near the border, he added.
‘Worse than ever’
The crackdown on money brokers seems to have become especially intense in the last several months.
The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that relies on a network of anonymous sources inside North Korea, reported a “massive campaign” of broker arrests beginning in May.
Whereas brokers who were caught used to receive three to five years of reeducation as punishment, North Korean authorities have now tripled those sentences to 10 to 15 years, the Daily NK reported.
“The punishment is worse than ever,” said Ju Chan-yang, another Seoul-based defector, who told VOA she has stopped trying to send money to North Korea altogether.
Even when offered a 70% commission, a broker refused to send money from one of her friends to a family member in Pyongyang who has cancer and needed money for treatment, Ju said.
North Korea’s lockdown is also preventing defections, which have plummeted to historic lows.
In 2019, 1,047 defectors arrived in South Korea, according to data from Seoul’s Unification Ministry. In 2020, only 229 defectors arrived in South Korea.
During the second quarter of 2021, only two North Koreans reached the South. That is the smallest quarterly figure since Seoul began counting in 2003.
Lee Se-jun, a South Korea-based defection broker, told VOA he has not helped facilitate an escape from North Korea in over a year, due to the intense security buildup on the North Korean side of the border.
Another factor is the skyrocketing cost of defections.
Hong, the former North Korean border guard, said it now costs up to $21,000 for North Koreans to defect, compared to a previous rate of about $13,000.
No end in sight
The North Korean pandemic restrictions may not be relaxed anytime soon.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has repeatedly warned of “prolonged” anti-epidemic measures, even as his government continues to insist it has detected no coronavirus cases.
Many of those who have escaped North Korea now acknowledge it may be a long time before they will hear from family.
“It’s a real double whammy,” said Park. “Along with everything else, so much of the contact is being shut off at the time when North Korean people face their biggest challenges in 20 years.”