Bribery and Extortion Are Common in North Korean Commerce

Bribery and extortion by agents of the People’s Safety Ministry and the community watchmen assigned to neighborhoods and illegal alley markets are more coercive and abusive than gangsters in western countries and South Korea and operate in a systematic fashion.

Kim Sun Jung, who is a wholesaler in Pyongyang, talked to The Daily NK on Tuesday from the border region in North Korea. She said, “Wives of military officials and general workers should engage in trade in order to get by even in Pyongyang. Those who cannot get a stall in a permanent market (an allowed market, called jangmadang) sell goods in alley markets near the jangmadang, neighborhood alleys or on the banks of the Daedong River, but they always get trouble from PSM agents and community watchmen, who systematically squeeze money and goods from them.”

According to Kim, currently in the center of Pyongyang, the Pyongcheon and Jung districts on the west side of the Daedong River, and the Sunkyo, Dongdaewon and Daedong River districts on the east side, the number of street stalls set up along the river has been increasing greatly.

Traders selling goods along the river are chased every day by agents. If they are caught, they have to pay for the stalls. The cost is the same for a stall in permanent markets, 250 won per stall.

She said that, “In order to avoid paying the 250 won street tax, you often see traders clutching their goods while running this way or that way. Nowadays, agents use cell phones, so it is not so easy to get away.”

Besides the costs for a stall, agents regularly demand meat and alcohol in order to offer them to their cadres including the chairman of the PSM office. If they have not gathered as much as they want through bribes, they confiscate goods and impose fines, around 20,000 or 30,000 won, and offer the excuse that, “Trade is prohibited by those above.”

She said such despotism is directed not only at illegal trade but also at the jangmadang. She explained, “In a permanent market when the chief manager (of the market management office) comes to the site under the pretext of doing an inspection, after collecting as many goods as he wants, he leaves the market without having carried out any inspection.”

In addition, according to sources in the jangmadang, street vendors have been spreading recently. Agents help themselves to food and alcohol there without paying. The street vendors sell pork and alcohol until 11 in the evening and after agents eat there, they leave saying only, “Comrade, trade well.”

Lee Ok Rim, who sells goods in a market in Pyongsung, South Pyongan Province, explained another type of extortion, “Even though the authorities have been strictly monitoring the sale of South Korean goods, traders cannot give them up because they’re good. Accordingly, agents take advantage of this situation: they will confiscate all South Korean goods through a sudden crackdown, and then a few days later, if they get tens of thousands of won in fines, they give the goods back to the traders.”

She explained, “When wholesalers who smuggle South Korean goods through Shinuiju are caught, they must pay 100,000 won as a fine.” Once wholesalers are caught, they make the acquaintance of the agent in charge, offer bribes regularly, and then will not have any further problems in supplying South Korean goods. For agents who are in charge of monitoring wholesalers, this is a big business, so they generally put a lot of work into monitoring them because the scale of regular bribes from wholesalers is huge.”

Therefore, traders openly say that, “Agents are much higher than secretaries of the Central Committee of the Party,” according to Lee.