Officials on military bases in North Korea are moonlighting as security contractors, according to sources, assigning soldiers to guard private vehicles and freight in return for cash used to maintain operations and line their own pockets.
A source from South Hamgyong province, near the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service that he had recently made use of the unofficial service while transporting goods for his business in a rental car from Changjin county to Samsu county in neighboring Yanggang province.
“I stopped over at a military base at night and parked my car there, then stayed at an inn that soldiers guided me to,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It costs much more to have soldiers guarding private vehicles and goods, but it is much safer than self-guarding them somewhere else. The soldiers not only guard private vehicles and goods, but also introduce inexpensive inns for us.”
According to the source, military personnel charge set fees to individuals who park their vehicles at their bases or at other complexes where soldiers will guard them.
“Private individuals who own a car used for factories or businesses pay to park their cars at military bases, or at other factories and businesses where armed state security is stationed,” he said.
“There is no other way to keep the vehicles and freight secure.”
Parking fees for a six-ton Chinese “Dongfeng” truck, is 2,000 North Korean won (U.S. $0.25) per hour per vehicle, and 4,000 North Korean won (U.S. $0.50) per hour per vehicle with freight, the source said.
Lodging is 4,000 North Korean won per night per person and meals are not included, he added.
A second source from Yanggang confirmed that military personnel are not only providing security for private vehicles on their bases, but at various other complexes around the country.
“There usually are at least 30 vehicles and 60 or more cars parked at the Hyesan Bus Company and the Hyesan Long Distance Transportation Company in Songbong,” a district in Yanggang’s Hyesan city, said the source, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“It is impossible for them to move all vehicles to military bases to park them.”
According to the source, most vehicles guarded at transportation companies are owned by private individuals and used on behalf of their companies.
“In the case of Hyesan Long Distance Transportation Company, seven soldiers from the 8th General Bureau guard the vehicles at the company every night from 8:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. the next morning, in shifts,” the source said.
“For this type of daily guarding of vehicles, the owners pay, altogether, around 350,000 North Korean won (U.S. $43) or 270 Chinese yuan (U.S. $40) per month. Once they receive money, the military commanders don’t care how many cars are parked at the facility.”
Payments for vehicle security are then divided up between base officials, after being used for operational costs, the source added.
“The 8th General Bureau in Hyesan city uses 30 percent of the earned money for base maintenance and the rest of the money is shared between commanders and political commissars,” he said.
“The owners treat the soldiers guarding their vehicles to food and drinks, which the soldiers won’t refuse.”
Positions of power
Members of North Korea’s military regularly use their positions of power to exact payments from the public for services outside of their official duties.
In April, sources told RFA that soldiers along North Korea’s border with China were encouraging residents to use illegal cellphones operating on Chinese satellite networks or defect in return for “protection” fees to make up for bribes that have dried up amid heightened controls in the region.
With illegal river crossings into China and smuggling activities at the border experiencing a significant downturn in recent months, soldiers who normally earn a living through payoffs had been forced to find new ways of supplementing their income, they said.
The sources said soldiers had begun visiting the homes of defector families to warn of the tightened border situation as a pretext to collect protection money for helping them to use Chinese cellphones that can make calls outside of North Korea, or even to defect.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.