Rampant Bribery and Graft in North Korea

North Korean money via NK Insider

SEOUL – The international organization Transparency International publishes an annual “Corruption Perceptions Index” (CPI) to evaluate corruption in 180 countries and North Korea has consistently been ranked as one of the most corrupt nations worldwide. 

Reports suggest that corrupt practices, often referred to as “maegwanmaejik” in North Korea, have become deeply ingrained in the country’s social fabric.

Despite North Korea’s claims of promoting socialism and ensuring a good standard of living for all, the reality is quite different. 

The monthly salaries provided by the state are uniformly low, ranging from the equivalent of about US$0.2-0.5 per month. Even high-ranking officials like those in the military or the ruling party only receive around $0.5 per month.

To put this into perspective, with rice priced at approximately $1 per kilogram in North Korean markets, it’s virtually impossible for North Korean citizens to make ends meet on the salaries provided by the state.

North Korea legally prohibits private enterprises, leaving its citizens with limited means of income. To survive, many turn to illicit means such as bribery and graft.

According to North Korean defector Choi Jung-chul, who worked as an overseas laborer in Russia and defected to South Korea in early 2023, virtually every job and government position, as well as admissions to universities or prestigious high schools, can be attained in North Korea by paying a predetermined price.

The fact that such professions and positions are bought and sold in U.S. dollars rather than North Korean currency reveals the lack of confidence in the North Korean won and the North Korean economy overall.

According to Choi, a $100 bribe is necessary to work as an overseas laborer, becoming a manager (a position overseeing 10 to 40 workers) at a foreign construction company requires $3,000, and being appointed as the head of an overseas laborer dispatch company costs $10,000 in “lobbying fees.”

For various positions and roles in North Korea,  predetermined lobbying fees have become a common practice among North Korean citizens.

If one aspires to be appointed as a local party official, it costs $600, and seeking employment with a reputable company or pursuing a career as a taxi driver typically involves fees ranging from $200 to $500.

Becoming a 10-ton truck driver requires $500, and even securing a position as a police officer necessitates a payment of $1,000.

Choi also mentioned that the fees for university and high school admissions are fixed, with popular universities like Pyongyang University of Architecture, the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, Pyongyang Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and Kim Il-sung University demanding lobbying fees ranging from $4,000 to $5,000. 

Specialized schools focusing on nurturing artistic talents like Moranbong No. 1 Middle School require $3,000, and even less popular universities expect at least $500 in bribes.

These lobbying fees are typically paid to individuals with authority over appointments, employment, or student admissions. In North Korea, government agencies and institutions oversee this system, with the Human Resource Department taking a leading role.

While the party organizations may have some influence, the ultimate decision-making power lies with  human resource departments.

Consequently, these HR department jobs are regarded as some of the most desirable professions in North Korea, and fees for appointments in this field are also predetermined.

With North Korea facing increased hardships due to UN sanctions, economic restrictions and self-imposed border closures during the pandemic, corrupt practices like “job and position trading” have continued to proliferate.

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