This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean quarantine enforcers are using their authority during coronavirus prevention inspections to extract bribes and food out of citizens struggling to survive under an economy devastated by the pandemic, sources in the country told RFA.
With orders from the central government to shore up defenses against newer strains of the virus, the inspection teams make their rounds but find violations wherever possible to force the residents to serve them meals or pay fines, which they then pocket.
Under normal circumstances, this type of corruption is business as usual in North Korea. North Koreans engaging in illegal activities like smuggling, watching foreign media, or making illegal phone calls routinely pay off authorities to look the other way.
But making a living during coronavirus has been difficult. With very little to go around, many can barely afford to put food on the table, much less feed or pay off opportunistic quarantine officers.
“At the end of January, an order was issued from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] to be more thorough in implementing national emergency quarantine measures,” a resident of North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast told RFA Feb. 23.
“However, by invoking harsher measures to enforce the quarantine, the tyranny of the officers has in turn become harsher. So, the people are complaining,” the source said.
“To more effectively enforce the quarantine, they dispatch investigation and inspection teams to every region of the province,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The authorities claim that new variants of the coronavirus have made preemptive measures necessary, citing instructions from the party, according to the source.
“But the quarantine officers are tyrants. They make useless disputes over issues that have nothing to do with quarantine. Under the pretext of quarantine inspections, the residents’ personal items are inspected, and useful items such as food are confiscated.”
“There have even been a series of cases in which people who move short distances to make a living are being held, and authorities are demanding bribes in exchange for their release,” the source said.
“Originally inspections were scheduled for once a week, and the inspection time was not set. Even so, quarantine officers constantly come to factories, companies, and neighborhood watch units unannounced,” said the source.
During these visits, the officers inspect things like the disinfectants people use or how they wear masks, and find ways to impose fines, according to the source.
“In early February, quarantine officers from Chongjin city’s Chongam district inspected to see whether or not disinfectant liquid was provided at the Chikha cooperative farm. Each work team is supposed to boil seven to 10 kg of salt water to use as disinfectant, but the inspectors flagged them by saying the water was not disinfectant, just water,” said the source.
“Since the Chikha farm is a unit that receives [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un’s guidance, if there is a problem raised about the quarantine, the impact is inevitable. The farm officials recognize the seriousness of the situation, so they are able to solve the problem only after providing the inspectors with a large meal, with chickens raised on the farm.”
Another source, a resident of nearby South Hamgyong province, told RFA Feb. 24 that quarantine offices there have also been harassing residents by finding quarantine faults.
“The quarantine officers do not question whether the masks worn by the residents are actually proper masks that are effective in preventing disease,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“But people with the tip of their nose exposed above the mask are fined 5,000 won [U.S. $0.62], 10,000 [$1.25] won if the skin around the mouth is visible, and 50,000 won [$6.25] if the mouth is fully exposed with a mask on the chin. The problem is that all fines are collected in cash and go into the pockets of the inspectors,” the second source said.
In the case of South Hamgyong, even the police are not above the quarantine officers’ inspections.
“A police officer in Yonggwang county was arrested by a quarantine officer for not wearing a mask properly while walking on the street. The police complained harshly to the quarantine officer and he was fired after it was reported to the Central Party,” said the second source.
The second source said that the police officer was forced to move to a remote area of the county as punishment.
“The authority of the quarantine officers has become too powerful,” the second source said.
North Korea, despite claiming to the international community that it is coronavirus free, has taken extensive precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, including restricting travel between provinces, locking down entire cities and counties, and cancelling major cultural events.
RFA reported in April 2020 that in public lectures, authorities admitted to citizens that the virus was spreading in three geographically distinct areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.