In most places in the world, people head for a service station when their cars run out of fuel. But what do people do in North Korea, where petrol stations are few and far between?
They look for someone who has a personal supply of fuel, and surprisingly perhaps, the most obvious source is a traffic cop.
North Korean traffic police always have plenty of petrol to hand. They have a habit of stopping cars for a trumped-up traffic infringement or for having the wrong papers, and siphoning out some of their fuel in lieu of a fine or a ticket. Most drivers know that it’s a waste of time to argue with the traffic police, so they give up the petrol without complaint.
The system works so that when their cars run out of fuel, they fill-up their tank again by visiting a traffic cop and bartering personal possessions. Drivers also have to barter or exchange their belongings for road permits and driving documents.
In addition to a driver’s license, North Korean drivers need to show a special permit for driving an empty truck (it is otherwise forbidden to drive one), a military mobilization permit (to transport soldiers in times of war), a certificate of driver training (to be renewed every year), a fuel validity document (a certificate confirming, ironically, that the petrol was purchased from an authorized source) and a mechanical certificate (to prove that the car is in working order).
But in reality, there is probably not a a single driver in North Korea who has been able to obtain the many necessary documents through official channels. Thus North Korean traffic police can demonstrate their power by stopping cars demanding to see the correct paperwork and exacting payment for drivers’ inevitable inability to do so.
The gas that is obtained in this way is then used as bribes further up the line, or sold back to drivers in exchange for goods that the officers need.
North Korean refugee Kim Ji-ho* explains, “Since there aren’t that many cars in North Korea, drivers and traffic police usually know each other. When drivers run out of gas, they ask their traffic cop for a top-up. They offer not money, but some item in exchange. In that way, we get on by bartering.”
Traffic-related bribery isn’t confined only to drivers, but is also common among pedestrians. When an occasion comes up when people need to use a car, they can get the use of one through the traffic police, who have the authority to confiscate a car on the spot. Ordinary drivers who are not part of powerful organization have no choice but to do as they’re told.
North Korean refugee Choi Bok-hee* tells us, “When I have to use a car, I go to see a traffic cop I know, taking him a bottle of alcohol. As soon as he sees my face, he asks, “Where do you need to go?” And then he stops car after car until he can set me up with one that’s heading to my destination.”
Since North Korean civilians know that petrol can be used like money, they sometimes use their mouths and hoses to suck fuel out of parked cars while no one is watching. If they get found out, they cannot complain even if they get beaten to death.
It’s a very risky way to earn a living but the traffic police, simply by wearing a uniform, may take with impunity what an ordinary citizen would be punished severely for stealing.