14 arrested in remittance sting operation

A large group of North Korean residents involved in money transfer operations between defectors in South Korea and their relatives is under police investigation in North Hamgyong Province, report sources close to the matter.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on August 17 that a total of 14 brokers and people linked to them were taken into custody by the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) in Musan on August 9 as part of an ongoing investigation.

“They were caught due to an undercover investigation carried out by the MPS, whose agents were able to gather evidence while the actual financial transaction was taking place,” he said.

According to a 2017 Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) survey of 415 North Korean defectors, 64 percent of respondents said they had transferred money to North Korea.

The process is complex, requiring a network of brokers who skim off commissions at each step. Corruption among law enforcement officials further complicates matters and can have grave consequences.

Notably, a separate source familiar with the investigation remarked that the circumstances of the investigation were different to the run-of-the-mill intimidation tactics routinely used to extract bribes. Such extortion tactics are typically used to secure funding for political events or operational funds to be funnelled up the chain of command.

“This abrupt change in behavior from law enforcement officials, who for so long have been accommodating remittances for a cut [bribe] suggests that orders to eradicate such collusion have come down from the highest echelons of power,” he said.

Furthermore, defectors and sources inside North Korea are reporting an increasing number of cases of intermediaries absconding with the money or law enforcement agents extorting those involved to such a degree that none of the money ends up reaching the intended recipient.

“Then to throw salt in your wound they tell you they’ll reduce your punishment if you rat on others involved in the operations,” a source in South Hamgyong Province said.

Residents lack resources or an avenue to complain about the systematic injustices and endemic corruption buttressing the system, leaving them with little choice but to comply and do anything in their power to protect themselves and their families.

“In this latest case in Musan, some of the intermediaries told the MPS officers during the investigation, “It’s not like we were the only ones involved,’ a tacit threat to expose the MPS’ role in the operations. But the officers ignored it and were totally unperturbed,” a separate source in the area with knowledge of the incident told Daily NK.

Hampering communication lines with the outside world and stifling the free flow of information into, out of, and within the country is also thought to be driving the investigation, according to the source.

“When the goal is to extract bribes for whatever purpose, they knab a few people and focus on intimidation and threats. But in this case they’re expanding the radius and concentrating on tracking down all accomplices,” he said.

“They’re likely concerned with how these people are using smuggled phones to carry out the transactions, worried about what other information is being shared in the process.”