North Koreans survive by paying bribes: UN

GENEVA • North Koreans are being forced to pay bribes to officials to survive in their isolated country where corruption is "endemic" and repression "rife", the United Nations' human rights office said in a report released yesterday.

The report said officials extort money from a population struggling to make ends meet, threatening them with detention and prosecution - particularly those working in the informal economy.

North Korea has rejected the report, saying it was "politically motivated for sinister purposes".

"Such reports are nothing more than fabrication... as they are always based on the so-called testimonies of 'defectors' who provide fabricated information to earn their living, or are compelled to do so under duress or enticement," its Geneva mission said in a statement to Reuters.

North Korea blames the dire humanitarian situation on UN sanctions imposed for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes since 2006. But the report said that the military receives priority funding amid "economic mismanagement".

"I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans," Ms Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

"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," she said.


Four in 10 North Koreans, or 10.1 million people, are chronically short of food, and further cuts to already minimal rations are expected after the worst harvest in a decade, a UN assessment said earlier this month.

"The threat of arrest, detention and prosecution provides state officials with a powerful means of extorting money from a population struggling to survive," the UN rights office report said.

Bribery is "an everyday feature of people's struggle to make ends meet", said the report, entitled The Price Is Rights. It denounced what it called a "vicious cycle of deprivation, corruption and repression".

It is based on 214 interviews with North Korean "escapees", mainly from the north-eastern provinces of Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, bordering China.

They were the first to be cut from the public distribution system that collapsed in 1994, leading to a famine estimated to have killed up to one million citizens, it said.

"If you just follow instructions coming from the state, you starve to death," a woman from Ryanggang, now living in South Korea, was quoted as saying.

"If you have money you can get away with anything, including murder," another unnamed North Korean defector testified.

Many North Koreans pay bribes of cash or cigarettes to avoid having to report to state-assigned jobs where they receive no salary, the report said. Others bribe border guards to cross into China, where women are vulnerable to trafficking into forced marriages or the sex trade, it added.

Ms Bachelet urged the North Korean authorities to stop prosecuting people for engaging in legitimate market activity and to allow them freedom of movement within the country and abroad.

"Addressing these issues could open a path to tackling the wider range of human rights concerns that exist in North Korea today," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2019, with the headline 'N. Koreans survive by paying bribes: UN'. Print Edition | Subscribe