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Beef and crystal meth: gifts for North Korean officials at harvest festival

The Guardian, September 10, 2014

This week, the Korean Peninsula has been celebrating the Chuseok thanksgiving festival, when families come together to share food and give thanks to their ancestors for an abundant harvest.

In the North, the holiday is also a time when officials exchange luxury gifts, and expect presents for their good favour. Sources inside the country have told DailyNK that, in addition to conventional cash gifts, popular presents now include beef (despite the illegality of slaughtering cows) and crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, or ice.

“People use holiday gift-giving as an opportunity to surreptitiously present a bribe to an official,” a source in South Hwanghae Province told Daily NK. “Not so long ago, cash and a gift of nutritious carp or cigarettes [for men] would have been an adequate bribe. Lately, the drug ‘ice’ is also seen as an ideal gift.”

However, “the most opulent bribe one can give at the holidays is a gift of meat and cash,” the source said. Some people also “utilise the Beijing to Pyongyang train to bring in the fiery Chinese spirit baijiu, liquor, premier spirits, pineapples, bananas, and other prized items,” the source added.

In North Korea, the gift-giving culture – especially the exchange of high-priced goods between officials – is growing. “When Chuseok draws nears, officials and the donju [newly affluent middle class] become engaged in working their way to the head of the line for bribes,” said the source.

North Korea’s bribery culture is rampant. Good relations with officials must be maintained if citizens are to remain untroubled while taking part in market activities. Although giving and receiving bribes is now considered a matter of course, the kinds of bribes given are diverse, and the price of bribes is increasing. In the past, a person’s rank had indicated their level of influence and power; now, it’s their wealth.

During Chuseok and other holidays, there are officials that must be, without fail, approached and given gifts. This includes the following: the market manager [in charge assigning merchants to their locations and collecting fees] the State Security Department [SSD] member in charge of surveillance and regulations, and fuel wardens who manage gasoline and diesel oil.

North Korea has been producing methamphetamine for years as a means of earning hard currency, and the drug is used to help alleviate health problems. ‘Ice’ is also referred to as ‘bingdu’ and is mass-produced in Hamheung, South Hamgyung Province. A gram of ice costs 100 RMB (around £13). Though the price is high for many North Koreans, it is not prohibitively expensive for officials who use the drug.

“Because enforcement isn’t very strict, officials can comfortably receive drugs as gifts,” said the source. “Generally, the amount of ice given depends on the status and rank of the person being gifted; higher-ranking officials receiving larger amounts of ice. If you just need something stamped, one gram of ice is sufficient. If you need to do business with an official, the usual method is to give a gram of ice along with a US dollar.”

North Koreans are forbidden to slaughter cows for their meat, because cows are extremely important and deemed a means of production. However, cows that die of natural causes can be utilised for meat, usually to feed officials or soldiers.

Some merchants “go and offer bribes to managers in charge of meat to disguise fresh meat as being from a cow that has died of a disease,” said the source, adding that even when the gift is given, the pretence that the meat came from a cow that had died naturally must be upheld.