Authorities in North Korea are issuing vast numbers of travel permits to citizens with relatives in neighboring China and requiring them to pay “loyalty offerings” in Chinese yuan, in a bid to obtain much-needed foreign currency for the sanctions-hit government, according to sources in the country.
North Korea regularly exports workers to Russia, China, and places farther afield such as the Middle East and Africa, but requires them to remit much of their earnings to Pyongyang, which is believed to use the cash to fund development of missiles and nuclear weapons.
Reports that the government is encouraging North Koreans to visit their family members in China and bring back thousands of Chinese yuan (1 yuan = U.S. $0.15) for the privilege suggest that the Kim Jong Un regime is employing new methods to skirt international sanctions aimed at freezing its weapons program.
A source from North Hamgyong province, near the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service that he had been refused permission by North Korea’s Ministry of State Security to visit his relatives in China 10 times over the past six years, but recently received a travel permit “all of a sudden.”
“I gave up on visiting my relatives in China, but Ministry of State Security officials recently came to visit me with a travel permit without providing any notice,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They had ignored me until now, because I didn’t give them a bribe, but they suddenly issued a travel permit and pushed me to visit my relatives,” he added, saying that as “a powerless person” he “never had a chance” to pass the screening process.
But the source told RFA that the opportunity to travel to China came with a price.
“Residents who have relatives in China got travel permits issued, including myself,” he said.
“But the Ministry of State Security is forcing us to pay 5,000 yuan (U.S. $750), so I’m hesitant about visiting my relatives.”
A second source who recently received a travel permit told RFA he was still working in China to earn enough money to return home and pay his “loyalty offering” to authorities.
“As I’m set to return home in few months, I will have to pay 5,000 yuan to the Ministry of State Security, so I’m saving some money by working as a dishwasher at my relative’s restaurant,” said the source, who also asked to remain unnamed.
“Once the Ministry of State Security purposely issues a travel permit, you can’t just decide not to visit your relatives. The travel permit is issued as ‘special treatment’ from the General [Kim Jong Un]. Travelers are required to give offerings to prove their loyalty when they return home, and who can reject ‘special treatment?’”
The source said he was forced to undergo ideology training sessions, which taught him how to avoid South Korean television, magazines, and other material deemed illicit by the Ministry of State Security, for a month prior to visiting China, and even signed a document acknowledging that his family in North Korea would be punished if he did not follow the guidelines or attempted to defect.
“I came to China with about 20 people who also have relatives here, and there are more people waiting in line to travel to China [from the North],” he said.
“But you can only make about 2,000 yuan (U.S. $300) a month when you work in China, so I don’t know how I will be able to make 5,000 yuan for the loyalty offering,” he added.
“Visiting relatives in China helped me to get some used clothes and food for my family, but because of the loyalty offering, I will have to sell it all at a market.”
In August, sources told RFA that workers from North Korea dispatched to Russia to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime are being shortchanged as their employers flee the U.S. dollar in favor of the Chinese yuan to avoid sanctions targeting Pyongyang's illicit arms programs.
At the beginning of the year, Russia-based employers largely ended the practice of paying North Koreans in U.S. dollars, which Pyongyang prefers because of the currency’s stability, but which are more likely to attract attention for skirting sanctions, the sources said.
Instead, they said, the employers are paying North Korean handlers in rubles, which the handlers then change into yuan before paying workers and transferring the rest to Pyongyang. But the new system has led to frustration over how handlers determine what to give workers’ wages and what to give the state.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.