Hard Cash for Grave Sales

The isolated North Korean regime turns to selling burial grounds as a way to earn foreign currency.
2012-10-05
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The Patriotic Martyrs' Cemetery in the outskirts of Pyongyang, where North Korean national heroes are buried, in a photo from Nov. 11, 2008.
The Patriotic Martyrs' Cemetery in the outskirts of Pyongyang, where North Korean national heroes are buried, in a photo from Nov. 11, 2008.
HEMIS.FR

Selling grave sites to overseas Koreans is raking in valuable foreign currency for cash-strapped North Korea.

Plots in the outskirts of the capital are sold, mostly to members of the pro-Pyongyang Korean community in Japan, at exorbitant prices, sources say.

“When overseas Koreans ask for grave sites, the authorities provide the burial plots and get U.S. $2,000 to $3,000 per plot,” according to a North Korean defector from Pyongyang

The amount is about 2,000 times the official average monthly wage of North Koreans.

A North Korea expert in the South said that the sales were motivated by a need for foreign cash.

“North Korea is selling burial plots to overseas Koreans who want to be buried in their homeland and get foreign currency in return,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

Even after selling the plots, which allows the buyers long-term leases on the land, North Koreans can use the grave sites to demand the families of the deceased more money later, he said.

“They can demand aid from them using the graves as an excuse,” he said.

North Korea has been selling grave plots to overseas Koreans since the early 2000s.

International sanctions have bled the country of foreign cash, but pro-Pyongyang Koreans in Japan—headed by the General Association of North Korean Residents, known as Chongryon, that runs businesses, schools, and the regime’s de facto embassy in Tokyo—have long been an important source of foreign currency.

Prime spots

The overseas Koreans are getting prime locations for their final resting places, including propitious locations blessed with good Feng Shui.

Korean-Japanese economic leaders and members of Chongryon are buried in Pyongyang’s Yeokpo district, in an auspicious area on the hill leading to the tomb of the ancient King Dong Myoung.

“When you drive by the area, you can see white tombstones standing in lines in an orderly fashion on a sunny hill. Each plot is about 10m long and 10m wide [1,000 square feet],” a North Korean defector from Pyongyang familiar with the area said.

Better than most

He said that overseas Koreans have better located burial sites than most North Koreans.

“Right now, overseas Koreans are the only ones that have the graves of their ancestors in the Pyongyang area.”

Since the introduction of the cremation law in May 1998, many North Koreans have been required to cremate their dead instead of burying them.

But the sellers of the burial plots to overseas Koreans get around the law with a loophole in Article 5 that says, “When there is a compelling reason, one may bury his or her dead upon the approval of appropriate authorities.”

Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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