North Korean authorities are forcibly collecting goods from travelers to China as compulsory donations in exchange for issuing them a travel certificate to go beyond the borders of the isolated authoritarian country, sources inside North Korea said.
State security agents are suggesting that North Koreans who travel to China “promise to offer a certain item [as a gift] to the country” in order to receive a “private travel certificate for China,” a source from North Hamgyong province said.
“If one does not agree to offer goods, a ‘travel certificate’ will not be issued,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
The foreign affairs section of the country’s State Security Agency recently approved the issuance of the travel certificates, he said.
“A private tourist from the Sinam area of Chongjin [capital of North Hamgyong province] said that he has bribed lots of executives, but refused to bribe officials from the local office of the State Security Agency,” the source said. “As a result, the tourist’s travel certificate was canceled.”
Each foreign affairs section of a local State Security Agency demands that North Koreans offer goods as private tourists heading to China, claiming that North Korea is experiencing poor economic conditions.
On the list of goods are fertilizer, exercise equipment, and farm equipment.
“A person has to pick one item and offer it [as a gift],” he said.
The Security Agency’s list of items specifies minimum quantities and prefixed amounts, but travel certificate applicants must select the item and give more than the specified amount after they return from China, the source said.
“If one cannot offer the prefixed amount, then one cannot receive a travel certificate anymore,” he said.
Another source from North Hamgyong Province told RFA that if a North Korean wants to do business in China, he must set aside a portion of his earnings to pay to the government to benefit the country.
"Considering the fact that the State Security Agency is pressuring all private tourists to offer specific items, it appears that the bribes are not for the agency and that the order came from the central authorities,” he said.
“The central authorities have been talking about arduous efforts as the country empties the pockets of private tourists and Chinese living in North Korea who are peddlers, after all,” the source said. “It is even threatening the livelihoods of travelers who travel to China and make a living out of it.”
Private North Korean tourists returning from China bring “tons of necessities” with them to fulfill their obligation to deliver items to the State Security Agency, he said.
“If a private tourist cannot do business, it will not only be the individual’s loss—it will damage the country greatly as well,” he said.
Local markets in North Korea have been active and have allowed businesspeople “to fill their stomachs” because private tourists who load up on goods in China sell them to the merchants once they return to North Korea.
“The country is officially demanding bribes now, and it goes beyond individual executives demanding bribes,” he said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.