The corruption infection
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
What’s the greatest threat facing North Korea today? I’d say it is the new coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading across the nation, facilitated by corruption. A recent Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party suggests that threat is being taken very seriously. In that meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the eradication of corruption and countermeasures for contagious diseases. The reason both topics were brought up in the same meeting is probably because Kim believes they are intertwined threats.
Corruption alone is strong enough to threaten Kim’s grip. In his New Year’s address last year, Kim said internal corruption would “undermine our socialist system.” In April, he declared that the country’s war on corruption was “a matter with a vital bearing on the existence of our state.” In a Politburo meeting on Feb. 29 this year, Ri Man-gon was sacked from his post as director of the Organization and Guidance Department allegedly on charges of corruption — the same reason Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle and political mentor, was executed in 2013.
Transparency International placed North Korea among the 10 most corrupt nations out of 180 in its index published last January. North Korean defectors testify that graft is rampant in North Korea. Many officials would not be able to live without taking bribes because their monthly salaries cannot meet even half of their living expenses. A North Korean merchant at a market is capable of making 80 times more per hour than what a public servant earns. Before international sanctions were imposed, there were people who earned tens of thousands of dollars a year. In North Korean society, collusion between money and power through bribery is prevalent.
A bribery-based society where bureaucrats stealthily collaborate with those with economic power can collide with the regime’s political power, which is centered on Kim. The North Korean leadership ordered a clampdown on market activities in the mid-2000s upon realizing that bureaucrats fed on bribes from civilians. But officials who relied on bribes only pretended to crack down. Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il tried to fix the problem through currency reforms, but it backfired to the extent of threatening the regime.
The coronavirus outbreak was unpredicted. North Korea blocked its borders with China since January to prevent the spread of the lethal virus — even halting all official and nonofficial trade and travel with China. As a result, the North is expected to suffer huge reductions in exports and imports. But politically, a bigger problem is how that economic fallout impacts the market. If North Korea cannot import consumer goods and food from China, prices will rise. If trading shrinks in the market on top of sanctions, North Koreans have to struggle even more. Placing people under lockdowns will make matters even worse.
For those in the bribery community, now is the perfect time to make a fortune because consumer goods smuggled from China can sell at even higher prices in the market than before. Companies who are desperate to achieve their planned business goals will have to try to purchase smuggled materials even if they have to pay more bribes than in the past. Business operators will try to lure bureaucrats into enabling them to clandestinely carry out such activities while guaranteeing hefty payments. This may help spread the virus in the country.
If corruption and the deadly virus are combined, the regime could face an unprecedented crisis. Kim must prevent that from happening. That could be why he abruptly held a Political Bureau meeting and sacked Ri Man-gon and other senior officials on charges of corruption. By sending the message that such powerful figures of the Workers’ Party can be fired, Kim wants to cut the chain of corruption, a critical link in the infection. Kim allegedly said, “No special cases must be allowed within the state anti-epidemic system” during the meeting.
North Korea’s corruption control will likely succeed for a while as long as the bribery chain is stifled. But the human instinct for making more money will soon combine with opportunistic thoughts to erode the country’s preventive system. When people come to justify their actions because of the need for more money, corrupt practices will proliferate faster than the virus.
Kim wants to subdue the coronavirus outbreak before it gets out of control. His thoughts were well reflected in his recent sending of a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The Blue House said Kim expressed sympathy for the South Korean public’s health, but it was meant to signal his urgency.
Kim’s control over bureaucrats has weakened because of deep-rooted corruption in the society. The coronavirus outbreak may not be the end, and another incident can shake Kim’s grip over the regime. The only way to reduce corruption is to develop the economy and raise the salaries of his underlings — but this is impossible without denuclearization, reforms and opening. We hope Kim knows that.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.