North Korean Officials Covet Low-Level Posts That Let Them Skim Cash From Coerced 'Donations'

2015-12-09
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Images of revalued North Korean currency, released by the Japanese newspaper Chosun Sinbo on Dec. 4, 2009.
Images of revalued North Korean currency, released by the Japanese newspaper Chosun Sinbo on Dec. 4, 2009.
Yonhap News Agency

Newly recruited officials in North Korea are often locked in a fierce competition for the top posts of low-level administrative units, with those selected as unit chiefs left free to coerce money from ordinary citizens under their supervision, sources in the secretive state say.

Officials who hold the title banjang, who supervise units of about 30 households in residential areas, and their own superiors  “continually torment local residents with requests for all kinds of donations on the pretext of implementing central government policies,” a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service on Dec. 3.

These now coveted posts were less popular at the time of former national leader Kim Jong Il, with lower-unit chiefs often looked down as simple “errand boys,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Now, though, even lower-level officials with the title ‘jang’ have more power than most mid-level officials,” the source said, adding that it has become a daily routine for officials with the title to harass North Korean citizens with demands for money or items “assigned” for collection.

Residents harassed

In the Pohang district of Chongjin city in North Hamgyong, residents are now “heavily pressed” to contribute 20,000 won [U.S.$166, official rate; U.S.$2.5, black market rate] to the construction of a Miraewon, one of several “youth cultural facilities” including movie theaters, skating rinks, and ball courts now under construction in several North Korean cities, the source said.

“The chiefs are constantly knocking on the doors of local residents to collect the money,” he said.

“All funds collected by the central government must pass through the hands of the banjang or the dongsamujang,” officials assigned to supervise about 30 banjang each, another source in North Hamgyong said.

“For this reason, it is now said that petty officials holding the title of ‘chief’ enjoy as much clout as that held by officials in powerful government agencies,” he said.

'Incentives'

Banjang, dongsamujang, and the chiefs of agricultural workplaces and factories who collect money from residents, workers, and farmers often pocket some of that money for their own use, the source said, adding that the little money collected in this way soon grows into “a considerable amount.”

These money-making incentives have now led low-level officials to offer bribes to higher-ups of as much as 5,000 Chinese yuan [U.S.$830 approx.] in order to secure their posts, RFA’s source said.

One dongsamujang in North Hamgyong’s Sunam district was arrested in August on charges of having embezzled 30 million North Korean won, though even this case “can’t compare” with that of one dongsamujang in Pohang, he said.

“Even a ranking official with the [ruling] Workers’ Party can’t do anything about him, because he maintains his current post by donating large bribes to much higher-ranking Party officials,” he said.

Reported by Jineun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Richard Finney.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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