Customs Officers “Losing Face” in Pursuit for Bribes

Daily NK
Kang Jae Hyok
4/9/2007

Since the nuclear experiment last year trade between North Korea and China had dwindled. However, lately, business is prospering thanks to the friendly moods between the U.S. and North Korea. Nonetheless, the frequent change in customs officers and their unreasonable requests are disturbing the businessmen.

Some Chinese merchants travel into and out of North Korea everyday, or at the least every couple of days. One businessman, Han Chul Ryong (pseudonym, Korean-Chinese, 42) who had recently visited North Korea for business, expressed his feelings in a concerned voice in a telephone conversation with the DailyNK on the 6th.

Han currently lives in Jilian and has been trading goods with North Korea for 4 years now. With a 2.5 ton truck, he imports and sells North Korean seafood and herbal medicines in China.

Han said, “Nowadays, I don’t want to trade anymore because of the customs officers. They make our lives so difficult… It’s like they have some sort of steel plate over their faces or something. They have no dignity, nothing.”

He added, “Customs officers are so competitive and make so many demands that I cannot remember them all unless it is written down in a notebook. They request a variety of goods such as food, fruits, medicine and electronic goods. Alcohol and cigarettes are a must.”

Another tradesman, Kim Chan Joo (pseudonym) who was traveling with Han said, “Some customs officers go as far as demanding materials for home renovations such as cement, iron rods, window panes, windows, doors and nails.”

When asked what kind of privileges customs officers give after receiving bribes, Kim responded, “Of courses there are privileges… Sometimes they reduce taxes or place a blind eye to goods that should not pass through.”

He said, “There is a saying, ‘A cow fed also gives dung.’ A customs officer who has been fed bribes cannot possibly enforce strict control” and added, “Though customs officers have helped increase trade, as time goes by, the standard of their demands are also rising.”

“That’s not the only annoying problem. After going to all that trouble developing friendly relations with customs officers, they are replaced by new ones and hence there are many losses… It takes double time and money to acquire friendly relations with newly replaced customs officers,” Kim said.

Being a customs officer is considered one of the upper middle-class jobs in North Korea. Unlike an average office worker, customs officers are treated similar to the army. The National Safety Agency is even in charge of some of the customs officers.

Often these people are greedy to accumulate funds for retirement or for their children and as a result, try to gather as much as they can while in office. Even in a chaotic North Korea society, the position of customs officer is considered the yolk of an egg. Consequently, officers go to all means to confiscate as much money as they can from Chinese tradesmen and relatives visiting family.

North Korean authorities are strengthening control over customs officers, however it is difficult to obliterate the problem as it is so deeply rooted. Rather, than the situation dying out, it seems that their unreasonable attitude will increase.

If a customs officer makes receives too many anonymous complaints, he/she is given a warning or penalty. When the situation worsens, the customs officer is then demoted to a different office or in the worse case, dismissed from duty.

Recently, it seems that North Korean authorities have become more aware of the situation and are making efforts to enforce control. One method is removing the officers who are dependent on this corrupt system to different locations.

Han said, “If customs officers don’t do this, it is hard for them to eat and live… Though the demands by Chosun customs officers are increasing by the day, in order to trade there is no other way.”

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