Travel permits in the DPRK

Andrei Lankov writes in the Korea Times:

The North Korea of the old Stalinist days is gradually dying. In some regards the North is still a Stalinist society, but it is changing even if these changes do not necessarily attract much outside attention. One of the most dramatic transformations of the last year is a great relaxation of the control over movement inside North Korea.

Let’s start from how the system used to work in the past. For decades, no North Korean was allowed to leave his or her native county without special travel permit, to be issued by local authorities. The only exception was that a North Korean could visit counties which had a common border with the county where he or she had official household registration. If found outside his or her native county without a proper permit, a North Korean was arrested and then ‘extradited’ back to their native county for appropriate punishment.

There had to be valid reasons for issuing a travel permit, unless the person went somewhere on official business. In most cases one had to produce an invitation from relatives for a wedding or funeral or other sufficiently important event. Then the paperwork could begin. In most cases the application was first authorized by the party secretary in one’s work unit, then it was sent to police and, finally, to the so-called “second department” of a local government (these departments were staffed with police officers).

There were various types of travel permits. For example, a trip to some special areas, like Pyongyang or districts near the DMZ, required a special travel permit which had to be confirmed by Pyongyang. There were also special types of permits for the military and some very special types for big wigs.

A trip overseas was virtually impossible. North Koreans could go abroad only on official missions and, in a very limited number of cases, they were permitted to visit relatives in China.

The system crumbled in the mid-1990s. The Great Famine made it unsustainable. Around 1996 the public distribution system collapsed, and millions of North Koreans began to move all over the country looking for food. The government turned a blind eye to their activities, and soon the restrictions ceased to be enforced.

It is not clear to what extent the travel control system was officially relaxed, and to what extent the changes resulted from benign neglect. For all practical purposes, from around 1997-98 the North Koreans enjoyed some freedom to travel without permits, with Pyongyang and some sensitive areas being an exception. This sudden relaxation (even collapse) of the domestic controls was a necessary preliminary condition for the explosive growth of private economic activities in the country. People could trade only because they could travel.

North Koreans also began to cross the border and travel to China where they looked for food and jobs. Crossing the border was illegal, but it was impossible for a country with a crumbling economy to enforce border control. Thus, once again, authorities turned a blind eye on everything which was happening in those areas.

In 2001 the system changed again. The Great Famine was over, largely due to the efforts of international relief agencies and the new policies of Seoul busily feeding its “brother/enemy.” Thus, the system of travel permits was re-introduced, but its new version, in operation from 2002, is less restrictive than earlier regulations – and still largely ignored.

Nowadays, the authorities issue travel permits for trips lasting a week or two. Often they can be bribed to speed up the process, and in such a case the permits are produced almost immediately. The amount of bribe varies, depending on the destination: from some $10 for Pyongyang to merely $2 to $3 for a humble countryside destination. Money seems to be paid usually in exchange for speed.

There is something even more remarkable: In recent years North Korean authorities began to issue certificates which allow its bearer to travel to China, crossing the border legally. The procedure is time-consuming, taking about six months. As usual, it requires special security checks by the authorities. However, the outcome of such procedures is not pre-ordained, so generous payments are helpful to steer officials in the right direction. In this case, the bribes are much larger, up to $100 (as opposed to the usual $50). For the average Korean this is a large amount of money, but a majority of the applicants are engaged in the cross-border shuttle activity, and for them $100 is not an exorbitant sum. They are quite happy to get permits. Even if they pay bribes they still feel themselves more secure and more law-abiding. Being Koreans, they obviously prefer to go about business legitimately.

So, the old system is dying, even though the authorities would much prefer to keep it in place. Nonetheless, it might take many years before these changes have meaningful political consequences.

Read the full story here:
Travel permits in N. Korea
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


One Response to “Travel permits in the DPRK”

  1. Corfu villas says:

    I don’t know the economic status of Korean. How can I judge Korean economy? how it’s enough this this post information I just known some information. Thanks for sharing this information