Economic Crime and Punishment in North Korea

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)
Working Paper
10-2
March 2010

The penal system has played a central role in the North Korean government's response to the country's profound economic and social changes. As the informal market economy has expanded, so have the scope of economic crimes. Two refugee surveys-one conducted in China, one in South Korea-document that the regime disproportionately targets politically suspect groups, and particularly those involved in market-oriented economic activities. Levels of violence and deprivation do not appear to differ substantially between the infamous political prison camps, penitentiaries for felons, and labor camps used to incarcerate individuals for a growing number of economic crimes. Such a system may also reflect ulterior motives. High levels of discretion with respect to arrest and sentencing and very high costs of detention, arrest and incarceration encourage bribery; the more arbitrary and painful the experience with the penal system, the easier it is for officials to extort money for avoiding it. These characteristics not only promote regime maintenance through intimidation, but may facilitate predatory corruption as well.