As North Korea attempts to hermetically seal its border to stop COVID-19 from entering the country, Daily NK has learned that bullying by bureaucrats in the border city of Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, is growing worse by the day.

“Recently, demands for bribes by enforcement or customs officials in Sinuiju have reached extremes,” a source in North Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Oct. 22. “As crackdowns on locals grow, people are clamoring that [times] are tough.”

The source attributed this phenomenon to the worsening financial straits of North Korean bureaucrats who used to take bribes from traders and smugglers. This changed after the country closed the border to prevent COVID-19 in January, cutting off trade and smuggling.

Having taken a major financial hit as their income from bribes has shrunk, officials from the Ministry of State Security, border guard and customs are now brazenly shaking down people for bribes or cracking down on them with excessive zeal, the source said.

“When trade was alive, cadres with the Ministry of State Security or customs office received about USD 2,000 a month [in bribes],” said the source. “But now, unable to receive that money with trade shut down, they are cracking down severely in markets, calling everything illegal, and extorting the people.”

In short, officials face a growing financial predicament because their previously state-guaranteed rations have all but stopped and income from bribes have dried up. They are turning to simply squeezing innocent people under a variety of pretexts.

Some Ministry of State Security cadres are reportedly taking even more extreme measures: learning which smugglers have amassed plenty of property at their homes and visiting them to demand bribes.  

“Smugglers [complain] that they’re getting swarmed by flies [Ministry of State Security officers] day in and day out,” the source said. “They’re groaning that they can’t make money with smuggling shut down and that they also have to cough up money.”

Sinuiju apartments organization
From a vantage point in China, apartments can be seen being built in Sinuiju’s Ponbu District. / Image: Daily NK

Meanwhile, after recently being subject to a general inspection by the North Korean authorities, cadres at the Sinuiju customs house have likewise begun shaking down smugglers for bribes.

Quoting a source, the Daily NK previously reported that the customs house in Sinuiju was subjected to an intense inspection by the central government in August. As a result, about 80 customs officials and other individuals were arrested on charges of taking bribes.

The unprecedentedly intense inspection, which was launched in line with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s stated intention to root out corruption, led to sweeping charges against cadres and other officials who had been taking so-called “kickbacks” and the large-scale replacement of customs officials. The source told Daily NK, however, that the replacements differ little from their predecessors.

“I don’t know how they knew, but the new people [customs officers] are reportedly going to the homes of smugglers and demanding bribes, telling them, ‘I know how much money you’ve got, so cough it up,'” said the source. “Smugglers are complaining they can’t live like this with two or three people visiting them a day to demand money.”

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

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.