North Korean authorities recently started levying fines on some North Korean citizens who, after returning to the country from travel to China and other countries for personal reasons, overstayed their sojourn periods, Daily NK has learned. 

North Koreans in China have recently been spotted returning back home through customs offices in Hyesan and elsewhere, a Yanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on Friday. North Korean authorities had blocked the return of its citizens as part of COVID-19 containment measures. Now it appears North Korean officials have allowed them to return in the wake of China declaring “victory” against COVID-19. 

Upon re-entering the country, the returnees are subject to strict quarantine and medical examination procedures. North Korea is still under a “maximum anti-epidemic system,” which means that all those returning from abroad are quarantined in preventive care facilities for 40 days. 

“Before, those who exceeded their stays abroad were punished through, for instance, imprisonment in a labor camp, but lately the authorities are levying fines on them,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Daily NK.

The switch to fines suggests that North Korean authorities are trying to soften the triple blow the domestic economy has suffered this year due to the pandemic, international sanctions, and damage caused by typhoons. 

North Korean women in Dandong sojourn
North Korean women leaving a customs office in Dandong, Liaoning Province, China. / Image: Daily NK

It is unclear what exact criteria the authorities are using to levy the fines, although they appear to be based on the number of days a person has overstayed their sojourn period overseas. The source told Daily NK that the fines can be anywhere between RMB 8,000 (about KRW 1.38 million) and RMB 20,000 (about KRW 3.44 million). “I heard that someone who overstayed his sojourn period by a year and a half paid RMB 12,000 [around KRW 2.06 million],” the source said. 

The source also pointed out that many people travelling for personal reasons are actually housewives responsible for the livelihood of their families. Some have expressed their dissatisfaction with the switch to fines saying, for example, “We earned money abroad through great difficulty and now our country is taking it away from us.” 

Others, however, are happy to hear the authorities have switched to levying fines because, in their view, paying fines is better than being sent to a labor camp. They understandably would rather focus on earning money through their business activities than being locked up somewhere. 

The Ministry of State Security’s External Affairs Department is in charge of issuing visas to people travelling abroad for personal reasons. The ministry has long issued visas for personal travel as a means to obtain foreign currency and reportedly demands more than USD 500 (around KRW 580,000) in bribes to issue them. Ministry officials also conduct “ideological investigations” on North Koreans who want visas for personal travel.

*Translated by Gabriela Bernal

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.