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North Korean military officers resort to drug running to make ends meet

North Korean soldiers Panmunjom, Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); North/South Korean Demarcation Line. (John Pavelka/Flickr)
This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

As North Korea’s economic system changes with the introduction of market forces to the state-led economy, it is becoming increasingly necessary for citizens to find alternate sources of income, as government salaries are not enough to live on.

This is becoming the case even for military officers, who once had privileged positions in the North Korean hierarchy. But now, as their elite status begins to wane, many are resorting to illegal activities to supplement their income.

Sources say that the corruption has moved past simple bribery and participation in black markets; military officers are now involved in drug trafficking and trade of nationally regulated goods to the point that military authorities have begun investigations into officers’ role in these activities.

“These days, military officers are in collusion with local merchants,” a source in South Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean service on Monday. “It’s really gotten out of hand!”

“Recently one officer from a military unit under the VII [Army] Corps was caught and punished for carrying a couple kilos of drugs on a train,” the source said.

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“Soldiers, especially officers, are unlikely to be searched in a train or at checkpoints, unlike ordinary folks,” said the source, adding, “Since it’s almost guaranteed that they won’t be searched, shrewd merchants are paying the officers to act as couriers for illegal goods.”

“Even for the elite officers of the Korean Peoples’ Army [KPA] it is difficult to live only on the small salary provided by the government,” said the source.

“Merchants are able to use their hardship. They lure these officers into illegal business with the promise of huge paydays,” the source said. “It’s now a major concern for military authorities.

“This kind of illegal activity is usually taken up by military officers who frequently travel for their individual assignments,” said the source. “They sometimes don’t show up to their unit and give excuses to hide the fact that they are actually doing illegal business activities.”

“Military authorities are having a hard time catching them,” the source said.

Another source, also in South Hamgyong said, “Military officers didn’t just start being corrupt yesterday”

“Authorities take measures to address this issue from time to time, but these aren’t concrete solutions to the problem,” the source said. “In fact, corruption among military officers is on the rise!”

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“The fact that corruption is still widespread even when the authorities regularly investigate and hold meetings to fight it makes one question the living conditions of the military officers [involved],” the source said.

“These guys are depending on their tiny rations and low salary for survival,” the source said.

[It’s no wonder] that so many end up in running drugs or doing other illegal things for merchants. They’re trying to provide for their families!”