Clothed in a padded jacket, diving suit, and fins, the man swam six hours in the ocean in the dead of night. He reached the South Korean shore and passed stealthily under the heavily fortified border fence by crawling through a drainage tunnel, initially without alerting security forces. Cameras captured the man’s blurry image, signaling heavily armed guards. It took hours to track him down and detain him. Guards finally found the man lying on the ground, buried in leaves. Upon capture, he expressed a desire to defect from his country. He was willing to risk such a dangerous feat to escape the Communist nation.
Psalm 72:14 says, “From oppression and violence He redeems their life, and precious is their blood in His sight.” About 33,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea since the mid-1990s. They’ve left behind oppression, poverty, and their families. When they chose to leave, these men and women gave up hope of ever returning. Still, most long to know the friends and families they left behind will survive and even thrive.
Many North Korean defectors living in South Korea share part of their income with parents, children, and siblings back home. They hire “brokers” to stay in touch with their families. Those brokers use smuggled mobile phones to help North Koreans call family members. The phone users seek out mountain locations where they can get better reception while avoiding detection by North Korean officials. When family members call, defectors send money through the brokers who then help smuggle cash and goods into North Korea.
“The money we send is a lifeline,” says Cho Chung Hui. He transferred about $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “It’s such big money. If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30 to $40 per month.” Cho’s siblings used to travel for hours to meet brokers and contact him for money. They haven't called since November 2019.
Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mom climbs a North Korean mountain and uses a smuggled cell phone to wish her daughter a happy birthday. She also arranges a badly needed money transfer. This year, Ms. Choi didn’t get her birthday phone call. She wonders why. Quite possibly it’s because North Korea has shut its borders more tightly than ever before. The country has some of the strictest restrictions on movement in the world. Smuggled phones have gone silent.
If his family calls again, Cho will send money. “I feel sorry for them because we couldn't come here together,” he explains. Choi continues to hope for a call from her mother. “I’m waiting for her call more than ever these days,” she says.