North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for a war on corruption during his New Year’s Day speech, and subsequently purged 50-70 members of the wealthy elite. Photo: KCNA via AFP

Highly unusually, a North Korean dictator and a global human rights body may find themselves on the same page regarding the corruption that is endemic across the deeply isolated and impoverished nation.

On Tuesday, the UN Humans Rights Office released a 43-page report, “The price is rights: The violation of the right to an adequate standard of living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

The report details how a failure of the North Korean state has led to the citizenry struggling to provide for their basic needs by engaging in market activities – in the face of extraordinary levels of corruption.

“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe state officials,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, in a press release that accompanied the report.

Ironically, corruption and abuse of power are issues railed against by none other than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself. Kim, who seeks to assert control over his decrepit state and secure revenues, called for a war on corruption during his New Year’s Day speech, and subsequently purged 50-70 members of the wealthy elite.

The current dire state of affairs inside North Korea has had a long gestation period.

Survival markets survive and thrive

Following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and years of bad harvests aggravated by wrong-footed agricultural policies, a destitute North Korea was stalked by murderous famines in the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, in a period known to North Koreans today as “The Arduous March.”

However, the catastrophe generated some positive legacies.

With the socialist state distribution system having collapsed, North Koreans were forced to fend for themselves. Many traveled to China to buy food and medicines, and returning home, sold or bartered these goods in survival black markets.

Though the famines ameliorated, the state distribution system never fully recovered. The markets, on the other hand, survived and have defied all attempts by the state – including a botched currency re-denomination and official orders for them to close during Kim Jong Il’s funeral period – to quash them.

Today, the markets, known as jangmadang, have transitioned from black to grey to virtual vanilla. They exist nationwide in plain sight, and are the key source of goods for the majority of the populace.

They no longer just offer food and medications, they sell virtually everything, from fashion items to household goods, from alcoholic beverages to electronic products. Most are sourced from China, but local products are sold as well.

The economic efficiencies engendered by the markets are seen as being responsible for the rising quality of life in North Korea, creating a nascent consumer society. They may also play a role in the country’s remarkable resilience to sanctions.

But as the markets upgraded the economy from the bottom up, the top-down salaries of state law enforcers, security officials and other government officials could not keep pace. Meanwhile, although the markets exist in plain sight, many market and market-related activities are still in breach of outmoded state laws.

Due to this latter situation, officials have plentiful opportunities to abuse their power and collect bribes in exchange for permitting commercial activities to take place freely.

A dual world

The UN report, which was collated from 214 defector testimonies in 2017 and 2018, asserts that North Korea has not fulfilled its obligations to realize the right of its citizens to an adequate standard of living. “It has neither sought to modify its failed public system, nor helped to establish a functional and legal private sector to alleviate the economic destitution facing much of the population,” the report notes.

In this situation, bribery can mean survival. “If you just follow instructions coming from the state, you starve to death,” said one interviewee.

The overall situation means that North Koreans subsist in a “precarious, parallel economy… exposed to arbitrary arrest, detention, and extortion,” the report states. This economy is heavily based on “the informal but pervasive practice of bribing state officials who are in a position to enable people to side-step state requirements and regulations in order to work in the private sector and avoid arrest,” the report continued.

Yet, not everyone has the wherewithal to pay. According to UN figures, some 43% of the population in 2019 are malnourished, suggesting a lack of income in a country that spends massively on its military and its nuclear arsenal.

And even for those who have money to bribe their way out of trouble, the situation creates psychological trauma.

“I felt it unfair that one could bribe one’s way out of [detention] when another suffers much more as a result of being unable to bribe,” said one of the report’s sources. “Bribery is effective in North Korea. One cannot lead a life in North Korea if he or she does not bribe his or her way.”

Bribery: Good or bad?

By eroding the power of the state and offering individuals certain freedoms, graft is not entirely a bad thing, says one informed observer.

“In a country where the rule of law is designed to protect the pubic good, corruption is a bad thing, but in North Korea where the rule of law is designed and implemented for Kim Jong Un and the Korea Workers Party, corruption can help people and be a good thing,” Park Sokeel, the Seoul director of civic group Liberty in North Korea, told Asia Times.

“If someone is caught making a phone call to a relative in South Korea, or watching a South Korean film on a USB, they can use money to mitigate punishment,” Park, whose NGO assists defectors as they escape via China to South Korea, and also helps them resettle in South Korea, continued. “The other thing is to buy opportunities – such as to buy a travel pass or an opportunity to make money in the market economy.”

Still, there are very obvious downsides to a society where the system is so skewed that rampant corruption has become a basic fact of life. “It means that someone could literally get away with murder,” Park said.

And given one statement in its press release, the UN may indeed have recognized that it could share common ground with Kim and the regime which oversees the system.

“A significant set of reforms would be in everybody’s interests, including those of the government and of the international community,” Bachelet said.

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