North Korean authorities have recently bolstered their crackdown on “brokers” who transmit remittances from overseas.

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Thursday, a source in North Pyongan Province said the Ministry of State Security has been arresting “people who handle remittances” since May. 

“Because the ministry is engaged in an intensive crackdown, the people who are caught are receiving heavy punishments as a way to set an example to others,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the source, the security agency is stressing that offenders “will be unconditionally punished” if caught because “receiving remittances from the outside world when the entire people are engaged in self-reliance is non-socialist behavior, and such behavior erodes the spirit of socialist society.”

As further evidence of what is going on, a source in China who recently spoke with Daily NK said: “I received a remittance request and tried to contact North Korea, but I couldn’t make any contact at all. When I asked somebody else to find out [what had happened], I was told the remittance agent had already been dragged off by the Ministry of State Security.”

As late as last year, the money sent back by defectors in China to families back in North Korea was serving as a decent source of income for not only defectors’ families and the brokers who cater to them, but even to the Ministry of State Security agents supposedly tasked with cracking down on them.

Remittance brokers take a 10% to 40% cut of the money sent by defectors, which has made it a popular way to earn money. 

remittance ryanggang province border agreement equipment
A sentry post on the Sino-North Korean border in Sakju County, North Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

Ministry of State Security officials are supposed to crack down on illegal remittances from overseas, but many have long been taking bribes to look the other way.

In North Hamgyong and Yanggang provinces, where a lot of defectors hail from, local economies had been flourishing on remittances from abroad. Remittance-related activities were widespread and even surveillance agencies openly condoned what was going on.

Following the closure of the China-North Korea border as part of efforts to fight COVID-19, along with strict crackdowns on smuggling and defections, however, North Korean authorities have apparently drawn their knives on remittances from defectors as well. 

In fact, North Korea’s leadership has accused the Ministry of State Security of corruption, given the fact that the ministry’s agents have long overlooked illegal international phone calls and remittances despite being tasked with curbing such crimes. 

“The crackdown on remittances is aimed at carrying out orders set out by the Eighth Party Congress,” said the source. “It began as part of a wider crackdown by the judiciary and prosecutors, along with the security and police agencies.”

In fact, in the assessment report of the Eighth Party Congress held early this year, North Korean authorities called for eradicating “non-socialist and anti-socialist phenomena” and “thoroughly establishing socialist lifestyles throughout the entire country.” They also stressed that “prosecutors, social security agencies, and state security agencies” must perform “their entire mission and responsibility” to” secure the nation’s system, policies, and people. 

However, the Ministry of State Security — the agency tasked with cracking down on remittances — will apparently find it difficult to completely root out the phenomenon with the institution itself involved in the business.

“The Ministry of State Security is now cracking down on remittance brokers, but because its agents can make money from both the targets of the crackdown and the ministry conducting the crackdown, remittances won’t disappear from North Korea,” the source speculated.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to