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border, china, north korea, dprk, defectors, defections. remittance
A marker delineating the border between China and North Korea (Wikimedia Commons)

North Korean security agents in North Hamgyong Province demanded large sums of cash from remittance brokers ahead of recent holidays, including Lunar New Year and the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Daily NK has learned.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK last Wednesday that “security agents along the China-North Korea border in places like Hoeryong and Onsong County harassed local remittance brokers for large sums of holiday money.” He added that the remittance brokers “scraped together the money whether they had it or not.”

North Korean security agents often receive orders from their superiors to make cash payments. As a result, security agents extort money from people to put together the cash for their “tasks,” as well as money for their holiday-related expenses.

In the past, smugglers were the primary targets of extortion. But as smuggling came to a halt when North Korea closed its border in the wake of COVID-19, remittance brokers, who make their money moving cash illegally, became the prey of security agents. Remittance brokers are full of anxiety every holiday when security agents come knocking asking for money.

According to the source, security agents in Onsong County visited the homes of remittance brokers and openly demanded cash before the latest set of holidays earlier this month. As the security agents demanded at least RMB 1,000 each, the remittance brokers had to come up with RMB 3,000 to 5,000 per person.

The remittance brokers were severely stressed by the burden of putting together so much cash on such short notice. However, they bit the bullet and paid anyway because they were afraid of what would happen in the future if they did not. They also need to maintain good relations with security officials to keep making money.

“Because remittance agents make money when everyone else can’t, people risk their lives to do it,” the source said. “During the holidays, they spend more money than they make because of the security agents, but they put up with it and pay for the future.”

Harassment knows no bounds

In Hoeryong, too, security agents demanded more than RMB 1,000 or 1,500 from remittance brokers earlier this month. The security agents created an atmosphere in which brokers could not refuse and vindictively followed and watched brokers who refused.

One security agent demanded RMB 2,000 from a particular money transfer agent in Hoeryong. Since the two barely knew each other, the agent politely refused, saying he would “pay him next time.” The agent left, but not before telling the broker that he would “regret” saying no.

After that, the security agent followed the broker everywhere he went and prevented him from working. Unable to overcome the pressure, the broker eventually paid the RMB 2,000.

“Remittance brokers felt a huge burden this year because security agents demanded more money than ever before,” the source said. “However, brokers and security agents are inseparable, and the former know exactly what will happen to them if they fall out of favor with the latter, so brokers have no choice but to pay unreasonable amounts.

“The security agents should be catching spies, but are busy shaking people down instead. Even the security agents are having a hard time making ends meet because of the lack of government rations, and in the face of endless tasks from their superiors, they are constantly harassing people.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to [email protected].

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