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     Jul 13, 2012

North Korea's culture of bribery
By Andrei Lankov

Present-day North Korea is often perceived as a tightly controlled Stalinist society whose life is arranged in strict accordance with countless regulations. That indeed used to be the case a couple of decades ago, but nowadays there are few countries where laws and regulations are broken with such ease and impunity.

There are many factors that make this possible, and corruption is one of them. Indeed, official corruption is endemic in many parts of the under-developed world, but it appears that North Korea is unique even in this regard - at least in East Asia.

Countless times this writer has asked a North Korean whether it is conceivable that a police officer or bureaucrat would refuse a bribe. My interlocutors always look at me with some bewilderment, since the question itself sounds strange - and


recently a middle-aged woman, a market vendor, said: "Are they crazy? How else would they stay alive?"

Contrary to what many believe, this was not always the case. North Korea of Kim Il-sung's era, that is, of the years 1960-1990, was not a nice place to live - as a matter of fact, it might have been the world's most regulated and regimented country. Nonetheless, it was quite clean. Officials and policemen enforced regulations and usually did not accept bribes. Indeed, until the late 1980s, it was often dangerous to offer a bribe to an official whom one did not know personally. Such an offer would not merely be rejected but might also have led to grave consequences.

The incorruptibility of the old bureaucracy has a rather simple and rational explanation: Most of the time, it did not pay to be a corrupt official under Kim Il-sung. Money was of surprisingly little use in the 1960s and 1970s, when pretty much everything was rationed and distributed by the state according to predetermined quotas and norms.

In those days officials lived significantly better than the average North Korean, no doubt. But they were affluent not because they had significantly more money (the wage differential between a top official and a humble worker was remarkably low), but rather because they had access to higher-quality goods and services that were not available to the common people. One of my North Korean interlocutors said: "Back in the 1980s, I did not care about money. Nobody did, since money did not buy much in those days." In those days, in the 1970s or 1980s, one had to be an official to drink beer every week, to smoke cigarettes with filters, or feast on pork a few times a month. But officials did not buy these goods at market; rather they received them from the state as part of their special (very special) rations.

In this situation, it did not make sense for an official to accept bribes as a reward for overlooking some misbehavior or violations of some rules. Money would not be particularly useful and at the same time there was a significant risk of being caught. If caught, an unlucky official would at best lose his or her job and at worst even freedom, and no amount of money would compensate for this disaster.

Things changed, though, in the early 1990s when the hyper-distributive economy of Stalinist North Korea collapsed. Minor officials were hit very hard by the crisis of the mid-1990s. Many of my North Korean friends have stated that during the famine of 1996-99, honest officials - those who sincerely believed in the official ideology, and operated strictly in accordance with rules - were usually among the first people to die. In most cases, their food rations were no longer delivered and, being loyal soldiers of the Great Leader, they did not want to involve themselves in any kind of illegal and immoral capitalist market activity. So a sorry fate awaited these true believers, and their colleagues learned a lot from their demise.

Indeed, an emerging market created numerous opportunities for self-enrichment.

Take the example of a police sergeant whose job in the late 1990s was to be a security guard on a train (in North Korea, all long-distance trains going to and from Pyongyang have a permanent police presence of one or two). Technically, he was supposed to arrest anyone who moved noticeable quantities of smuggled Chinese produce from the borderland areas to the capital of the revolution.

However, it did not work that way. A young woman trading in cigarettes would give him 500 won to make sure that nothing would happen to her or her sacks of cigarettes. That amount was roughly equivalent to five or six months of the sergeant's official salary. He did not merely accept the regular payments from the girl but also made sure that she would have a relatively comfortable seat, and even stood guard next to her sacks of merchandise.

By the mid-1990s, the old bureaucratic order had collapsed all but completely. People began to take bribes for anything, and this had much impact on daily life. For example, from the late 1960s, North Korea was remarkable for the level of control that was imposed on domestic travel; for any trip outside one's town or county, one would have to apply for a permit. This is still the case, but the trips have become much liberalized because a small bribe (the equivalent of US$1-$2) ensures that such a permit is issued immediately with no questions asked and no papers required.

We are conditioned to see official corruption as an evil, but in present-day North Korea, corruption might be a life-saver. The average North Korean gets most of his or her income (about 75%, if recent estimates are to be believed) from private economic activities - these include private agriculture, trade and small-scale household production, and myriad other things. Nonetheless, nearly all of these activities remain technically illegal. Unlike China, North Korea has never undertaken serious economic reform, so private economic activities are still considered crimes, even though they have long become, in practice, a universal norm (and without such activities many would be unable to stay alive).

The only reason these activities are able to exist is corruption. Without widespread corruption, many more North Koreans would probably have perished in the great famine because there would have been no way to have private agriculture, and it would have been nearly impossible for private traders to move food across the country, delivering it to areas where the food situation was especially dire. After all, trade in grain and long-distance travel for commercial purposes are both technically crimes. No markets would be possible had the local bureaucracy been serious about enforcing a multitude of bans and restrictions on commercial activities.

It is interesting that there are even some unspoken rules that regulate the way corruption happens. For example, at market, police would seldom, if ever, harass an obedient, generous vendor more than twice a month. Once a policeman is paid a bribe for overlooking some irregularities (say the sale of grain, liquor, blank DVDs and other prohibited items), he seldom pays attention to these activities for the next couple of weeks. Bribes do not just buy the vendor out of trouble in the moment, but also buy him or her relative security for a certain period of time.

Over the past decade, the corruption and vested interests of low- and mid-level bureaucrats are the major reason the government has failed to succeed in its dangerous attempts to revive the Stalinist economy. These efforts failed because of the quiet sabotage of these officials, who saw no reason to eradicate their major source of income: private and market activities.

Nonetheless, one should not be too positive about North Korean corruption. It might have saved many lives in recent times, but is also likely to create major problems in future. Corruption has become an inseparable part of North Korean culture, and has come to be seen as part of standard operating procedure. One has to be naive to think that this ingrained habit will disappear overnight, even in the case of a dramatic political change.

Even when the Kim family regime meets its eventual demise, when a new North Korea emerges, the culture of corruption may remain as part of its heritage. And perhaps eventually it will become a serious burden to a resurgent North Korean economy.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

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