In North Korea, even soldiers are vanquished by money

Monday 25th August, 2014

Today is North Korea’s Day of Songun, also known as “Military-First Policy”. But as far as ordinary soldiers are concerned, “Military-First Policy” is a misnomer; “Money-First Policy” is perhaps a closer description of reality on the ground.

Long-distance buses departing from the city of Chongjin, in North Hamgyong province, head to the cities of Kimchaek, Kilju and Hoeryong. The Chongjin bus company has been owned and operated by the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), North Korea’s equivalent to a national police force.

These buses typically have two drivers and one fare collector, all of them male. The crew is all male partly because they can better deal with those who avoid paying bus fares. But really, they are there to prevent Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers from riding the bus.

North Korean regulations state that soldiers are not allowed to take ordinary civilian forms of transportation. Nonetheless, soldiers frequently abused their military affiliation to bully their way into getting a free ride.

In the last few years, this state of affairs has come to be reversed. More specifically, as the Chongjin bus company began to join forces with the military police.

From the perspective of a bus company intent on increasing its profit margins, there is no reason to let soldiers enjoy the privilege of riding for free. And as long as the company agreed to share its profits by offering bribes to the military police, it would receive, in return, their support for  refusal of free-riding military personnel.

If some soldiers still thought they could get away with riding the bus for free, perhaps not aware of the nature of the arrangement, the bus driver could just report them to the military police.

In one case, a driver reported troublesome soldiers to the Chongjin military police without a word of warning. In the past, the military police would have stood on the side of the soldiers. But more recently, with the military police on the bus company’s bribery-in-advance payroll, the soldiers are the ones who end up getting punished.

The relationship between companies and military police became so cemented that even a soldier’s rank does not mean much anymore.

According to Kim Chol-ok, a North Korean refugee from Chongjin, ‘Once, an army captain got on a bus heading to Kimchaek without paying the fare. The driver warned him to get off, but the captain just brazenly stared back at him. That soldier obviously had no idea how much things had changed.’

‘In the end, the driver stopped the bus in front of the Chongjin military police headquarters and reported the soldier. After the driver explained the situation, the military police immediately pulled the captain off the bus. Bribe money is more scary and powerful than things like mere military rank.’

The intervention of the military police has drastically reduced the number of free riders. Soldiers who still must hitch a free ride can only really afford to do so after obtaining permission from the driver. KPA soldiers have, in other words, lost what arrogance they once held, while riding on the mood of the “Military First Policy”.

They have even grown afraid of getting on buses departing from Chongjin. In fact, soldiers are said to avoid these buses as much as they can, and you will no longer find many of them on those journeys.

You can read this in Korean.

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