WASHINGTON—Corruption is now so entrenched in North Korea that military officers will even give away information on nuclear test sites, according to an elite defector.
It’s now easier than before to collect such information in exchange for bribes, said the defector, who uses the alias Kim Ju Song.
Rampant corruption, collapse of the state-controlled ration distribution system, the opening of local markets, the breaking of laws to obtain food, and the under-funding of the military and local government units has led to bribe-taking at all levels, he said.
This is occurring even among sentries charged with guarding North Korea’s long border with China and its nuclear sites, this defector and others have reported.
“As the market economy began entering North Korea, people came to value money more than allegiance to the Dear Leader,” said the defector, referring to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Il.
‘Nothing but rations’
Kim, who said he worked for South Korean military intelligence for several years after his defection from North Korea in 2000, said that he had collected information for South Korea on nuclear test sites from 2005-2006.
“Soldiers have nothing but rations distributed by the government,” he said.
“To earn some dollars, they sell military food supplies outside their bases, but then get caught and reprimanded for corruption. I think they’ve come to realize that rather than selling military supplies, they’re better off keeping their heads down and selling military secrets…”
Kim added that North Korean traders and entrepreneurs say it’s hard to succeed without the support of the military, so business people and the military work hand in hand.
Bribes are standard
While still in North Korea following his retirement from a military career, Kim said, he worked as director of a trade center run by the military.
He was given the title sangja, somewhere between lieutenant colonel and colonel.
In line with what he described as standard practice, he said that gave some U.S. $150,000 to higher-ups from 1994-98, at which point he came under investigation for "giving money to traitors," meaning high-level military who had fallen out of favor and been detained for interrogation on suspicion of treason.
He said that had also purchased 10 Japanese cars for distribution to high-ranking military officers and this was held against him.
“Many people who I knew personally went missing overnight,” he said in an interview.
He was tortured in a number of ways, including sleep deprivation, he said, but after six months during which he denied the charges against him and convincing evidence couldn’t be found, his case was transferred to a civilian court.
“I was tied up with my hands behind my back and forced to stand,” he said, describing the torture.
“I was deprived of sleep for nine days. My legs would swell up like tree trunks and my head seemed to shrink. My eyesight would go. I went from 80 kilos to 40 kilos. I became a skeleton,” Kim said.
“The guards torture without leaving any marks.”
Medical parole and numerous bribes allowed his early release from a 15-year-sentence, he said.
He escaped to China, he said, and used a network of Chinese friends and business contacts amassed over the years to facilitate a relatively rapid move from China to safety in South Korea.
Kim's account of a large-scale purge of senior North Korean officials and military officers in 1998 and his subsequent arrest and torture in 1999 could not be independently confirmed. But news reports at the time suggested that such a purge occurred.
Citing South Korea’s intelligence agency, Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency reported in early November 1998 that senior North Korean officials in charge of intelligence, anti-South Korea operations, and economic cooperation had been purged.
The report also said Kim Young Ryong, deputy director of North Korea’s National Security Agency—the country’s state intelligence agency—was ousted after demanding more openness and reform at a private gathering. He was also reported to have been accused of taking bribes.
Other officials were driven out for alleged embezzlement and the amassing of illicit wealth.
Asked why he waited nine years since his defection to speak out about North Korean corruption and human rights abuses, Kim said he felt “relieved” and less vulnerable under the current South Korean government of President Lee Myung Bak.
He said he and other defectors distrusted previous left-leaning governments in South Korea, which he claims failed to support defectors, tried to silence them, and wanted to prevent them from developing into a political force.
On Nov. 20, Kim completed a five-day “testimony trip” to the United States during which he spoke to legislatures and congressional staff members at two closed hearings at the U.S. Congress and gave talks at Yale and Harvard universities.
Original reporting by Soo Kyung Lee and Song-Wu Park. Translations from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Written by Dan Southerland. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.