This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
November is “Accident Prevention Measures Month” in North Korea – which means that police are shaking down citizens for fines and bribes more than usual, sources in the isolated country told Radio Free Asia.
Paying off the cops is a way of life in North Korea.
Since most North Koreans can barely survive on the salaries of their government-assigned jobs – which in 2018 averaged about U.S.$4 per month – many families have side jobs, buying and selling goods as merchants or providing services.
Police officers and other authority figures, however, use their positions to extract bribes or fine people and pocket the money when they are in violation of minor safety codes.
November and May are government-sponsored accident prevention months, so people need to be especially careful because raids and crackdowns are more frequent, a resident in the city of Tanchon in the eastern province of South Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The official line is that the extra attention is to boost traffic safety. But in reality, police officers “tyrannically exploit people under the pretext of preventing accidents,” the source said. “People complain that this is going too far.”
People go so far as to liken police officers to thieves or “Oppashi,” a villainous Japanese police officer from a popular North Korean film set during the time Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula.
Police will vigorously ticket every little violation they can find, scanning car and motorcycle license plates to make sure they are up to date, the source said.
Even bicycle license plates are scrutinized. “Bicycle license plates used to be issued after the owner registered the bicycle at the local police office, but nobody has been doing that since the early 2000s,” she said. “So you either make your own or buy it from the market and attach it to the front of the bike.”
If found without a plate, bike owners can expect to pay 1,000 won (12 cents) for regular bicycles and 10,000 won ($1.21) for electric ones, according to the source.
At the end of the month, the local security department with the fewest accidents during the month is considered to have done a good job, sources said.
Authorities also check for workplace violations, a resident of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. If the police spot a violation, businesses can be forced to temporarily close.
“Security guards have been inspecting commercial service facilities such as restaurants and public baths,” the second source said.
To avoid the penalty, business owners can offer the police a bribe.
A restaurant owner in the Kyo-dong neighborhood got out of having to shut down due to a potential fire hazard by serving the inspecting security agent a bowl of dangogi-jang, an expensive stew made with dog meat, and 100,000 won ($12) in cash, she said.
“The public is on the verge of explosion due to their extreme dissatisfaction with the security agents who viciously extort residents to fill their pockets,” she said.