To make extra money, North Koreans pay big bribes for gold refinery jobs

Stolen gold and other metals are sold to donju, entrepreneurs engaged in smuggling.
By Son Hyemin for RFA Korean
To make extra money, North Koreans pay big bribes for gold refinery jobs
Amanda Weisbrod photo illustration/RFA

North Koreans wanting to land plum jobs as assayers at a well-known gold refinery — and to make extra money from illegally siphoning off some of the precious metal — must pay big bribes to supervisors, sources inside the country said.

Assayers, who test metals for purity, are the most in-demand jobs at the Jongju refinery in North Pyongan province, which is connected to gold mines in the region, they said. 

The Jongju refinery smelts lead and zinc in addition to gold, making it the most valuable refinery in North Korea, said a source from North Pyongan province, who requested anonymity for safety reasons. 

“So, it is not easy to get a job as an assayer at the Jongju refinery,” he said.

Those who work as assayers at the Jongju refinery for a year can earn several times more money compared to North Korean workers dispatched to Russia for three years to earn foreign currency for the Pyongyang regime, a second source from North Pyongan province said.

Such activity shows how workers must engage in bribery and stealing on the job in order to survive as North Korean’s cash-strapped economy continues to flag under international sanctions imposed for the regime’s nuclear program and missile tests.

North Korean workers dispatched to Russia are known to earn more than US$2,000 for three years of work — an amount that includes an official salary of about US$1,000 plus additional income from other jobs in private construction and moonshine production, said the source, who declined to be identified for the same reason.

How it’s done

Assayers at state-owned mines determine the weight of gold ore in extracted and mostly purified metals and record the figures before sending the gold to the Jongju refinery for processing, the source said.

For example, when ore from a mine in North Pyongan province is transported by truck to the Jongju refinery, the vehicle is first weighed with its load, the first source said. The ore concentrate – ore from which most impurities have been removed – is then poured out, and the empty vehicle is weighed again to determine the actual tonnage of the concentrate on a slip. This is recorded by the assayer.

The Jonju refinery smelts lead, zinc, gold and silver from the concentrates and holds them for the state, he said. The amount to be collected by the state is based on the figures recorded by the assayers and calculated during the first warehousing stage. 

If a mine supervisor who hands over the concentrates and gold ore to the refinery has an informal arrangement with the assayers, then the refinery will receive figures that are lower than the actual weight of what has been transported, the first source said, implying that some of the metals are siphoned off for illegal sale.

The lead and gold not officially accounted for are divided between the refinery manager in charge of the smelting process and the mine material supervisor who brought the material, the first source said.

But such arrangements take time to establish, said another source from North Pyongan province, who requested anonymity for the same reason.

Dollar bribes

And the bribes must be paid in U.S dollars – which are hard to come by in North Korea, but not impossible to obtain.

“Dollar bribes are a must to get a job as a measuring worker at the Jongju refinery,” he told Radio Free Asia. “You need to bribe the officials of the leadership department at the refinery on holidays and become close friends [with them] for at least a year.”

A typical bribe would be clothing worth US$100, appliances worth a few hundred dollars, or more than US$1,000 in cash, the source said. 

“The candidate with the largest bribe can get the measuring job,” he added.

Mine material supervisors bribe assayers and adjust the tonnage of the concentrate to be entered on the slip, said the second source. 

“Afterwards, he does business again with the refinery manager and steals lead, zinc, and in rare cases, gold — as much as the amount of concentrate that is not entered on the slip,” he said.

The stolen lead, zinc, and gold are sold to donju – entrepreneurs involved in a wide range of businesses, including retail and smuggling — and converted into cash. 

“If you buy lead, zinc and gold and smuggle them to the Chinese market, you can make a profit several times higher than the North Korean market price, so demand is high,” the second source said.

Demand by the donju for the metals is growing now that land-border trade between north Korea's Sinuiju and China’s Dandong soon will resume after being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee for RFA Korean. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.


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