North Korea is cracking down on prison officials who accept bribes from wealthy prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment while 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 salary for government-assigned jobs is not enough to live on. For most people, it means they have to get an extra job or run their own businesses.
However, police and government officials can make a living using the power of their position to extract bribes from the public.
In January 2021, the government established the Justice and Disciplinary Investigation departments. The two offices are tasked with auditing people in positions of authority to uncover any corruption and illegal behavior and report it to the Central Committee, the governing body of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
In April, the two departments spent a week investigating correctional officers at Chungsan prison in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, said a woman sent to Chungsan in 2019 to the FRG Korean Service under condition anonymous for security reasons.
“The inspection started when a prisoner who was released from prison informed the Central Committee that there was a ‘special cell’ in the No.11 Prison Camp (Chungsan Prison),” he said.
The special cell is where wealthy prisoners who can afford to bribe the right officials are sent to serve their sentence. They receive preferential treatment and are exempt from hard manual labor unlike most of their fellow prisoners.
Those who cannot pay the special cell bribe can bribe their way into the cafeteria staff or cattle breeding teams, according to the source.
This is advantageous because the government does not provide food and prisoners must grow it for the entire prison population. Cafeteria workers can sneak food, while the livestock team can eat food intended for the animals.
In either case, the special cell is the preferred option.
The source, who was jailed for accepting money sent by a fugitive relative who had resettled in South Korea, said several hundred US dollars is all it costs to buy special cellular privileges.
“If you give $500 a year to an officer from the correctional office, he will call the prison that you are going to settle in,” he said. “If he doesn’t have a personal connection to a correctional officer, then he can give the prison officer $100 per month to get into the special cell.”
The source said he did not know how many people were in the special cell, but estimated that during his time in Chungsan, there were 20 inmates on the women’s side of the prison.
“During the inspection, two officials from the provincial prison department and the director of Chungsan Prison were fired for taking bribes and giving prisoners special treatment,” he said.
Inmates also punished
Another source, who was released from Chungsan in April after serving a five-year sentence, told RFA that not only prison officers who took bribes were punished, but special cell inmates who bribed them were also in trouble.
“They are temporarily barred from family visits and also have three years of hard labor added to the end of their sentences,” he said.
As a result of the inspection, inmates face-to-face family visits will only be allowed once every six months. This is an abrupt change, as normal prisoners are allowed one visit every 15 days.
The second inmate said that new inmates will now also be separated based on their occupation and crime. Meth executives, wholesalers and dealers are separated because they have experience moving large sums of money overseas and are more likely to be able to pay bribes.
“These measures seem to be aimed at eradicating the source of bribery to prison officials, but I don’t know if they will be effective,” he said.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.