North Koreans are typically forced to pay bribes to get themselves out of trouble when caught watching foreign movies and dramas. For example, Daily NK sources in Pyongyang reported recently that a female university student was asked to pay USD 5,000 after being caught watching South Korean videos by Group 109, a government task force charged with cracking down on foreign video content. Another North Korean in Samsu County, Ryanggang Province, was arrested by Group 109 in May for watching South Korean dramas and shaken down for RMB 1500 (USD 211). 

Even taking North Korean exchange rates into consideration, however, the cost of the bribe in Pyongyang amounts to about 20 times the cost of the bribe outside of the capital city.

Why is there such a big difference between Pyongyang and the provinces when it comes to bribes? Daily NK interviewed several North Korean defectors who had watched South Korean dramas in North Korea in an attempt to shed some light on this question.

The answers below are summarized from answers provided by the defectors during interviews conducted by Daily NK.

Q: Why do North Koreans pay bribes? 

A: The North Korean system exercises strict control over the viewing of foreign video content, an act that would be considered trivial in many other places. In serious cases, the penalty can be forced labor or even death. If you are sentenced and sent to a forced labor camp, your life is ruined. But if you pay a bribe and are released, it’s like nothing happened. That’s why people choose to bribe officials when they can.

Q: It seems like Pyongyang bribes are excessively high.

A: Pyongyangites are afraid of being exiled from Pyongyang, more so than being sent to a forced labor camp. When you are exiled to the provinces, you’re not just changing locations. Your status in society (songbun) is fundamentally changed and you become a target of discrimination. People exiled out of Pyongyang end up living miserable lives in farm villages deep in the mountains. 

You and your family are punished, meaning that your entire family is exiled. So, Pyongyangites who have been caught watching foreign videos try everything they can to pay off officials, even when those same officials demand enormous bribes. 

Q: What do Pyongyang residents think about living in a farm village in the provinces?

A: Everyone says the laboring masses are the “protagonists of history and production,” but nobody truly believes that. Pyongyangites see provincial people as lowborn commoners who lead impoverished lives. They view the prospect of having to work on farms far away from the city as a terrible fate. 

South Koreans also take what they have for granted, so they’d probably feel the same if everything was taken away from them. Pyongyang is a relatively comfortable place to live when it comes to basic living, and especially when it comes to electricity. Pyongyangites can enjoy a lifestyle of some degree of culture and leisure.

Q: Even when considering Pyongyang’s privileges, the bribes there still seem excessively high.

A: Most of the foreign currency circulating in North Korea is in Pyongyang. People in North Korea generally prefer the US dollar over the Chinese yuan. There are also a lot of people who work in trade, have foreign contacts, or who have even been overseas to work. That’s why there’s a lot of dollars floating around. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants Pyongyang to be a city on par with other foreign cities. He wants to improve the quality of the residents and culture found in the city. Pyongyangites have good songbun and are unlikely to defect. They are given many opportunities to go abroad and earn money. In general, 70% of the North Koreans who go abroad as laborers are from Pyongyang. The remaining 30% are enlisted from the provinces. 

Generally speaking, discharged soldiers assigned to machinery manufacturing factories in Pyongyang will work there for around three years and then go abroad to earn money. They’ll do whatever is necessary to bring back dollars. 

Q: What other reasons might there be for such expensive bribes?

A: The government seizes your house if you are exiled from Pyongyang. So if you’re going to lose your house anyway because you have to pay an enormous bribe, it is better to just sell your house to pay for the bribe. That at least allows you to stay in the city. Real estate is more expensive in Pyongyang compared to the provinces so that means the bribes will likely be more, too. Also, wealthy people are frequently watching foreign videos out of curiosity or as a hobby, so the authorities know they can take more money from them.

Q: Do bribes differ from province to province as well?

A: There is a difference in the size of bribes between major cities and mid-sized cities, such as Pyongsong (South Pyongan Province) or Chongjin (North Hamgyong Province). In South Hamgyong Province or Kangwon Province, people only need to pay around USD 200-300 if their caught watching South Korean videos. 

Border cities like Sinuiju (North Pyongan Province) or Hyesan (Ryanggang Province) have relatively high bribes, if not as high as in Pyongyang. There’s more yuan in circulation at the border and the bribes there are about RMB 10,000 to 20,000 (around USD 1,400 to 2,800). Officials at the border also tend to view watching foreign videos more politically so there’s a higher chance of being accused of being a spy.

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@gmail.com.

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