North Korea recently accused a Colonel Choe, serving one the military staffs in the capital, of corruption. Choe is accused of stealing 200 tons of petroleum products over the last few years. The missing fuel did not show up on the records kept of fuel delivered because Choe organized a system where small quantities would be stolen from many of the tanker trucks he controlled. To make this work he had to work with many other colonels, or their subordinates.
Choe worked in the department that organized transport of fuel supplies to military units. Choe apparently worked his way up to his general staff position as one of the officers in charge of delivering fuel to the one tank and two mechanized infantry corps that contain about 20 percent of North Korea’s armored vehicles. During the last few years, the only ones receiving much fuel for training were the front-line tank and mechanized corps that barely received enough fuel to maintain minimal skills for the drivers. These three units consist of five armored and ten mechanized infantry brigades and a lot of support units. Although North Korea has over 4,000 tanks and 2,000 other armored vehicles, most of them are decades old models with obsolete protection and weapons.
South Korea believes that most North Korea armored vehicles are either not capable of operating, or at least not for long. The crews, especially drivers, have little training in operating vehicles they are assigned to. It used to be that about ten percent of the million men in the military were well supplied and trained. Those units have received less of everything over the last decade, especially food and fuel. Most units improvise by growing some of their own food and stealing from local farms. As long as no one gets killed, officers tolerate these thefts and the high command considers it “foraging”, something armies have done for thousands of years.
Fuel cannot be foraged and while colonel Choe had organized a discreet and difficult to detect system, someone noted that black market fuel merchants seemed to show up around the military tanker trucks often, but not obviously plundering the cargoes.
Colonel Choe will probably be executed but his arrest has not yet been officially announced. The Choe organization sold the pilfered fuel to black market merchants for about half the current black-market price. With the collapse of the Choe network, black market fuel prices have increased in parts of the country where the tank/mechanized infantry units are present, as well as some mobile artillery or any facility near the top of the fuel priority list.
It’s unclear how much Choe made out of all this or how long he had been doing it. His network may have stolen far more fuel. Since the covid19 lockdown in January 2020, there has been less of everything in North Korea. That meant even small quantities of fuel were quite valuable, especially for black market merchants and customers.
Choe lived and worked in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. This was the best place to live and work in North Korea. Access and permanent residency are restricted. Pyongyang contains twelve percent of the population and about twenty percent of GDP. The city became the capital because it was a major industrial center during the Japanese occupation (1910-45) and has remained an economic powerhouse. The city also contains the headquarters and many subsidiary components of all national organizations. This includes the military and the secret police (Ministry of State Security or MSS).
Residence in the capital requires official permission and that is difficult to get. Restricted access to the capital is also a security measure for the senior leadership as well as another obstacle foreign spies must deal with. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those entering or living in the capital without permission. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distributions are only for legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of regular food distributions there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals. This prevents visible signs of starvation but not hunger, which long-time residents have not experienced since the Great Famine of the 1990s. The government is trying to avoid that by getting more food to the capital markets. This will keep prices from rising as fast as in the rest of the country.
Colonel Choe is not an unusual case, except for his location in a senior staff job and the cleverness of his corrupt scheme. Choe is one reason North Korea has maintained its status as the most corrupt nation in the world for the second year in a row. Meanwhile South Korea is still among the thirty least corrupt nations (out of 180 surveyed). South Korea, a democracy with a market economy, is far more prosperous. Put simply, per person GDP in South Korea is more than twenty times higher than in North Korea. South Korean annual defense spending is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to three percent for South Korea.
Colonel Choe could live better and spend his illegal market oil income in Pyongyang because the city is the only place in the country where there are stores offering Chinese and Western goods for those who could afford them. For many North Koreans, that was an impossible dream, or, for colonel Choe, something to die for.