North Koreans are forced to pay bribes to officials to survive and are living in a “vicious cycle of deprivation, corruption and repression”, a UN report says.
Bribery is “an everyday feature of people’s struggle to make ends meet” and is part of a system which legitimises human rights violations, according to the report.
Many pay bribes of cash or cigarettes in return for not having to turn up at their state-assigned jobs – which they receive no salary for – allowing them to earn money in makeshift markets.
The country is officially socialist, but began legalising and regulating a number of informal markets after its public rationing system collapsed.
Other North Koreans bribe border guards to cross into China, although some are forcibly repatriated back to North Korea afterwards.
“If you have money you can get away with anything, including murder,” said an unnamed North Korean defector quoted in the UN report.
The report is based on 214 interviews with North Korean defectors, mainly from the northeastern provinces of Ryanggang and North Hamgyong.
These areas were the first to stop receiving resources from the country’s public distribution system, which collapsed in 1994 and led to a famine that is estimated to have killed up to one million people.
A woman from Ryanggang said: “If you just follow instructions coming from the State, you starve to death.”
The UN report also found officials took advantage of broadly worded laws to threaten citizens with prison time and prosecution, often targeting those working in the informal markets.
“The threat of arrest, detention and prosecution provide State officials with a powerful means of extorting money from a population struggling to survive,” the report said.
The state charges rent for stalls, controls prices and monitors what items are for sale in the markets.
North Korea has blamed the humanitarian crisis on UN sanctions which were imposed in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
However, the report accused the state of “economic mismanagement”, saying the military receives priority funding.
“I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe State officials,” she said.
Pyongyang has not yet commented on the report.