North Korea

North Korea cracks down on bribery in prisons


Wealthy inmates bribe prison officials to get out of hard labor and live in ‘special cells.’

North Korea cracks down on bribery in prisons

Rich prisoners can bribe the right officials so that they are sent to a special cell where they receive preferential treatment and are exempt from hard manual labor.

North Korea is cracking down on prison officials who accept bribes from wealthy prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment while they are incarcerated, two former inmates in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Bribery and corruption are a way of life in North Korea because the average wage from government-assigned jobs is nowhere near enough to live on. For most people, it means they have to get a side gig or run their own businesses. 

Police and government officials, however, can make their living by using the power of their position to extract bribes from the public.

In January 2021, the government established the Justice and Discipline Investigation departments. The two offices are tasked with auditing people in positions of authority to uncover any corruption and illegal behavior and report them to the Central Committee, the governing body of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. 

In April, the two departments spent a week investigating correctional officers at Chungsan Prison in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, a woman sent to Chungsan in 2019 told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Special cell

“The inspection started when a prisoner who was released from the prison reported to the Central Committee that there was a ‘special cell’ in prison camp No.11 [Chungsan Prison],” she said.

The special cell is where rich prisoners who can afford to bribe the right officials are sent to do their time. They receive preferential treatment and are exempt from hard manual labor unlike most of their fellow inmates.

Those who can’t afford to pay the bribe for the special cell can bribe their way into the cafeteria staff or livestock raising teams, according to the source. 

This is advantageous because the government does not provide food, and the prisoners must cultivate it for the entire prison population. The cafeteria workers can sneak food away, whereas the livestock raising team can eat food intended for the animals.

In any case, the special cell is the preferred choice.

The source, who was imprisoned for accepting money sent by an escapee relative who had resettled in South Korea, said that several hundred U.S. dollars is all it costs to buy special cell privileges.

“If you give US$500 a year to a correctional bureau official, he will give a call to the prison you’re going to to set you up,” she said. “If you don’t have a personal connection with a correctional official, then you can give $100 per month to the official in the prison to get into the special cell.” 

The source said she did not know how many people were in the special cell, but estimated that during her time in Chungsan, there were 20 inmates in the women’s side of the prison.

“During the inspection, two provincial correctional department officials and the head of Chungsan Prison were fired for receiving bribes and giving special treatment to prisoners,” she said.

Inmates also punished

Another source, who was released from Chungsan in April after serving a five-year sentence, told RFA that it was not only the prison officials who accepted bribes that got punished – the special cell inmates who bribed them were also in trouble.

“They are temporarily forbidden from family visits and they are also getting three years of hard labor tacked on to the backend of their sentences,” she said.

As a result of the inspection, face-to-face family visits for prisoners will only be allowed once per six months. This is an abrupt change, as normal prisoners are allowed a visit every 15 days.

The second inmate said that new prisoners will also now be separated based on their occupation and crime. Executives, wholesalers and meth dealers are separated because they have experience moving large sums of money around on the outside and are more likely to be able to afford bribes.

“These measures appear to be aimed at eradicating the source of bribes to the prison officials, but I don’t know if they will be effective,” she said.

 Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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