North Korea

December is bribery season in North Korea as public enterprises seek 2023 funding


To ensure their funding isn’t cut, organizations pay off officials with alcohol and gasoline coupons

December is bribery season in North Korea as public enterprises seek 2023 funding

North Korean women sweep a road in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 6, 2016. Budget-based companies in North Korea include urban beautification and rely on government funding to pay workers’ salaries and buy equipment.

It’s bribery season in North Korea.

Every December, state-run enterprises submit their budget proposals to treasury officials – and bribes to keep their funding from getting reduced, sources in the country tell Radio Free Asia.

In North Korea, many institutions – utilities, schools and hospitals – rely on government funding for all of their revenue. 

If their funding declines, they will have difficulty paying wages to employees, or they may be unable to deliver vital services to the public, according to an official at one of these organizations in the coastal city of Tanchon, who talked to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“To get even a little more funding, [enterprises] must bribe officials who control the budget,” he said.

His organization gave government officials 20 kilograms of alcohol and 10 gasoline coupons each, – a bribe worth about U.S.$160 together, he said. “The budget review was completed without any issue.”

Authorities are reluctant to accept the bribes in cash in such an official setting, so instead, commodities that can be used, or readily be converted into cash are exchanged, the source said.

Way of life

Bribery is a way of life in North Korea, where meager government salaries are not enough to survive on. Many people pick up side jobs to make ends meet. Police and other local government officials regularly accept bribes to supplement their income, sources in the country tell RFA.

Even central government officials and high-ranking members of leader Kim Jong Un’s inner circle live off of what others will pay them in exchange for favors.

A company in the northern province of Ryanggang sent its representatives to negotiate the budget with the provincial government four separate times in November and early December, one of the company’s employees told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

 “The company officials have no choice but to go see the senior officials and bribe them,” the employee said. “It is rare for a budget submitted without bribery to be passed as is.”

If funding is cut, “the damage is passed on to residents,” the first source said. 

For example, if an urban developer loses some funding, ordinary citizens are forced to provide free labor for maintenance on roads and parks.  Or if a sewage operator gets less government support, that means residents are recruited to run water treatment facilities and clean out sewers, he said.

According to South Korea’s national bank, the North Korean government’s budget in 2021 was about $9.1 billion, less than 1/40 of the more prosperous, democratic South. 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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