North Korea is probably the most corrupt country in Asia. Measuring corruption levels is difficult, and existing ratings (like the well-known index published annually by Transparency International) should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence appears persuasive enough: Official corruption in North Korea has been exceptional over the last 20 years.
In my frequent discussions with North Koreans, I have discovered the fact that most of them take a high level of corruption for granted. They assume that any official who is in a position to ask for bribes will. In fact, they are surprised if officials refuse bribes. Simply put, corruption is part of the fabric of daily life in North Korea today.
This was not always the case. Contrary to what many people in the Western might think, communist regimes (including the national Stalinism of Kim Il Sung) were not seriously corrupt – or, rather, corruption took on a peculiar form in these societies. While personal connections mattered and nepotism was rampant, there was relatively little graft and embezzlement was not commonplace. On a personal note, I spent 28 years living under such a regime, and neither myself nor any of my family members ever found themselves in a position that required us to pay a bribe to an official.
Communist officials in the mature Leninist state had a very rational reason to steer clear of bribe-taking: as long as the state socialist system functioned properly, cash could not buy you much. Of course, if you had enough cash in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, you could buy small luxuries like Japanese tape recorders or East German furniture, but things like cars, apartments, foreign travel and even some culinary delicacies could not be purchased with money. Rather, it was your position in the hierarchy that determined your access to such goods, which were either distributed or sold under controlled circumstances.
Thus, for an official, it made sense to avoid taking bribes. Bribe money would not buy much, but there was a risk of scandal, which would jeopardize your chances of getting promoted and thus actually diminish your chances of getting access to high-quality goods and services, not to mention power.
It was only when the Soviet system began to disintegrate that bribe-taking gradually turned into a rational strategy. In the Soviet Union, this process began only in the late 1960s and at the early stages was largely concentrated in the Central Asian republics and the Caucuses. It spread to other parts of the Soviet Union only in the 1980s.
In the days of Kim Il Sung the situation in North Korea was very similar. If anything, such features of the state socialist system were even more pronounced in the North Korea of Kim Il Sung’s era than in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. The North Korean distribution system was more comprehensive than anything Stalin could conceive, so cash mattered even less in the land of Juche. Thus there was probably even less bribe-taking in North Korea than in the Soviet Union, at least until the early 1990s.
Do me a favor
Of course, bribe-taking is not the only type of corruption. In both the Soviet Union and the North Korea of the socialist era another, more subtle, type of official corruption existed and even flourished. Both countries have a highly developed system of exchanging favors. Officials usually did not accept money for favors, but once they did something for somebody they expected to be paid in kind.
Sometimes this led to rather complicated combinations. For example, an official’s son would be accepted to a prestigious university because this official helped get a dean’s relative selected for a work tour overseas. Note the fact that no cash changed hands during such combinations. Similar things happened in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea as well: Connections and the ability to provide services for services rendered mattered enormously.
Things changed in North Korea in the early 1990s. As the economy collapsed, the North Korean government no longer had the resources to reward the zeal of the faithful. Officials soon realized they could not expect perks and giveaways from the state, no matter how hard they worked at enforcing regulations. They also discovered that everybody with a sufficiently large wallet could easily and freely purchase a great variety of goods and services, including those once available only through state distribution and patronage. The results were all too predictable: In a matter of years, official corruption skyrocketed.
For junior officials things were much worse: Their official salaries were small and rations stopped being delivered in the early 1990s. Thus, they had two choices: start taking bribes or starve. North Koreans often say that the incorruptible officials and the most earnest believers in the party were the first to die when the famine struck the country in the mid-1990s. These people could not bring themselves to take bribes and they believed the promises of the government about the food supplies that were soon to arrive. As a result, many honest officials starved to death, while the rest learnt the lessons and stopped being honest. The age of corruption began in earnest.
“Corruption” is a morally loaded word, a social evil that damages state institutions, plagues societies, and reduces economic efficiency. This is often the case, but in the North Korea of the 1990s, corruption is what made survival possible for many.
As the old command economy collapsed in the early 1990s the North Korean government kept the numerous laws that aimed to prevent the emergence of markets and private business. Had these bans been effectively enforced, they would have strangled the emerging nascent private economy – the latter is what helped millions of North Koreans survive in this new and frightening situation. Had officials remained zealous in enforcing regulations and effectively prevented North Koreans from traveling outside their native counties and cities, many would not have been able to find food and would have starved to death. Had they enforced regulations, people would not have been able to work on their private plots and produce much of the food the country so badly needed.
Fortunately, though, this did not happen. Most officials took the path of least resistance, and often did not bother to enforce anachronistic and senseless regulations. Sometimes they were driven by compassion or inner doubts about the system’s irrationality. However, most of the time, their willingness to turn a blind eye was bought by the interested party (or parties). Like it or not, in the hard times of the Arduous March, official corruption was a benign institution that saved North Koreans from the systemic legal irrationality that is North Korea.
Official corruption still plays this role. Bribes still ensure that officials ignore the booming private economy, which brings modest but palpable improvements in North Korea’s economic situation, but remains technically illegal. If, by some miracle, North Korean officials stopped taking bribes and started enforcing regulations, the likely result would be another famine and economic collapse.
However, my paeans to corruption should be taken with a measure of skepticism. Official corruption has been a relatively benevolent force in North Korea’s marketization and economic recovery, but will likely become an obstacle in future. Bribes and kickbacks have become a natural way of life for North Korean officials. When, sooner or later, North Korea acquires a more reasonable economic system, or even becomes part of a unified Korea, this ingrained habit is not going to disappear overnight. As a matter of fact, it is likely to continue for a long time – generations, perhaps.
In other words, even if under a new system officials are given good salaries, they are still likely to retain their habit of extorting bribes and embezzling everything they can. Of course, North Korea might change dramatically, but it is likely to remain a rather corrupt place. Needless to say, this is not does not bode well for further growth and economic development.
Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.