North Korean Crackdown on Cellphone Use Causes Spike in Corruption


2018-10-12
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korea-mobilephones-101218.jpg North Korean girls use their mobile phones in a park in Pyongyang in a file photo.
AFP

Corruption in North Korea is on the rise as agents from the Ministry of State Security more brazenly demand bribes to look the other way when North Koreans make calls to their relatives in South Korea on their mobile phones, North Korean sources told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Whenever we need to call our family in the South, we are under the protection of a security agent,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said. “Callers have the security agent by their side to secure personal safety,” the source added.

“If you send money through a broker who knows these agents, you can talk to relatives in the South without worrying about getting busted,” the source said. “Bribes range from 500 to 1000 yuan ($ U.S. 72 to 145, approx.) per call, which is quite expensive, and their tyranny is getting worse as their demands for more money are becoming more and more unreasonable.”

“Everyone knows that they are taking bribes from the residents,” the source said, “but nobody can do anything about it."

"So many people here are being exploited, but they think that it is beneficial to pay these bribes to be on good terms with the security agents.”

Another source, also in North Hamgyong said “A few days ago I asked my relative, a broker, to arrange a phone call with my daughter in the South, and when I arrived at the place he told me to go to, I had a really uneasy feeling when I found the agent waiting there.”

“I was unable to have a proper conversation because he was standing right there next to me, and when the call was finished I had to pay 700 yuan ($ U.S.100),” the source explained.

The source went on to explain that “With the government ramping up the crackdown on illegal cellphone use, business is great for the brokers.”

However, increased business does not necessarily mean that the process is easy. The source also explained, “these days, the brokers are reluctant to offer their services to people unless they know the person well. I am curious as to the reason for this.”

A change in procedure

The use of a broker to arrange a meeting with a security officer to make an illegal call is a departure from how these types of calls were made in the past, the source said.

“Back then, people only needed to bribe the agents if they got caught, and the issue would be resolved right then and there. But now if you get caught, you’re immediately hauled away to the Ministry of State Security,” the source explained.

“Bribing security agents ahead of time through a broker is the only way to evade the crackdown, and that’s why people are forced to choose this route.”

Bribery for illegal activities is a necessary way of life for government officials in North Korea, according to the website of  Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a Long Beach, California and Seoul, South Korea-based nonprofit established for the purpose of helping North Korean refugees.

LiNK says that there is now an explosion of corruption because the regime can no longer provide for the people, forcing them to find alternate streams of income. As most of these are considered illegal, it only increases the opportunity for officials to extract bribes.

The fact that the officials themselves are also underpaid only exacerbates the situation.

Whenever the government decides to crack down on a specific illegal activity, it is common for corrupt officials to seek more opportunities for bribes, or to demand more money from those caught doing that activity.

For example, RFA reported in January 2016 that the North Korean government issued a decree that increased punishments for those caught watching “illegal video material.” This had little effect on curtailing the illegal activity, as the number of North Koreans watching illegal videos actually increased.

But the decree was successful in filling the pockets of corrupt officials, according to RFA sources.

Reported by Myungchul Lee of RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Dukin Han. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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