North Korean officials demand bribes from citizens applying for domestic and international travel permits and harass travelers for payoffs amid increasing corruption within the hardline administration, according to North Korean defectors.
A North Korean woman in her 40s who recently fled to China said that citizens can no longer travel within North Korea without money, as security agents in charge of issuing travel documents will openly ask for “commissions.”
“It has been known for a while that Department 2 of the People’s Commissariat, in charge of issuing travel permits, has been asking for bribes, but these days the system has become so cunning and so greedy that they ask for U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan,” the woman, who gave her name as Kim Jung Hwa, told RFA.
According to Kim, in South Hwanghae Province’s Haeju city, senior officials of Department 2 of the People’s Commissariat openly ask for foreign currency, demanding U.S. $30 for a “red line permit” to Pyongyang and U.S. $20 for a permit to cross the border.
A diagonal red line is printed on travel permits to Pyongyang, while a diagonal blue line can be seen on permits to cross North Korea’s national border, she said, adding that officials of the department use verbal hints to solicit bribes for the documents.
On the black market, U.S. $30 can be exchanged for 80,000 North Korean won—nearly 50 times the monthly pay of an average North Korean worker.
Regardless of how difficult it may be to obtain a travel pass to Pyongyang, Kim said, the permit can be issued the following day if officials receive their bribes in dollars.
Kim said people who don’t have money to pay the bribes must wait for nearly a month to receive travel permits to the country’s capital, even if they have to deal with emergencies such as a death in the family.
She said U.S. dollars are highly sought after by the corrupt officials because the greenback is easy to keep, and can be used for any purpose.
But even when people obtain permits, travel is not guaranteed to be easy. Travelers taking trains must deal with train conductors and security agents who require additional bribes.
A Chinese national who recently snuck into North Korea said he had been repeatedly harassed by train officials looking for a payoff.
“On the train from Pyongyang to Shinuiju, railway security agents checked our papers five times. Actually, rather than checking out the people, they pay more attention to their luggage,” the man said.
According to the source, even if travelers produce the required documents, security agents tell them that the registration number on their travel pass is incorrect and take them to a detention compartment where they are held until they hand over money to “fix” the problem.
The Chinese source said his travel pass had been confiscated and he was made to pay about 20,000 North Korean won (U.S. $7) to get it back.
“In some places in North Korea people are starving to death, but railway security agents wear Seiko watches and smoke Cat cigarettes,” he said, referring to the nickname for the British American Tobacco (BAT) brand Craven A cigarettes.
“How can they afford to spend 2,000 North Korean won on a pack of cigarettes, based on their meager state wages?”
According to a report published by British newspaper The Guardian, BAT has been producing Craven A cigarettes through a factory in North Korea since 2001, though defectors say the brand was available in the 1990s. The cigarettes, they say, now trade hands in much the same way as hard currency.
The Chinese source said that corruption is systemic in North Korea.
“Security agents think they are entitled to request these bribes, and say, ‘Well, we’ve got to do it just to put food on the table and get by—what else can we do?'"
Corruption at the border
A defector from Chongjin, in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province, told RFA last December that security forces sent to the border with China take bribes to allow defectors to cross.
“Beginning in early December, agents of the State Security Agency and military high command were dispatched to the border areas,” said the man, whose sister defected to South Korea in 2005 and later helped him to escape.
“By the time they leave, they are loaded with goods they received as bribes,” he said at the time.
Ordinary North Koreans bitterly make fun of the corruption, saying the officials are just “preparing for the holidays,” the man said.
Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov told RFA last year that after years of relatively free crossing into China, Pyongyang had increased the number of guards along the border and that bribery soon became a standard practice.
“Very soon, border guards discovered that it’s a very profitable job, because especially when they deal with smugglers they can charge large fees for the right to pass to China, and especially back from China, with sacks full of merchandise,” Lankov said.
“So the guards are taking bribes, and I don’t think that the government is really trying hard to stop it, because officials up to very high levels are getting their cut. We are talking about a country which is very corrupt.”
Reported by Choi Min Suk for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.