North Korea remains one of the most closed states in the world, but it, like any other country, does issue passports to its citizens. Although, since most North Koreans never have an opportunity to leave their country, the DPRK’s passports are rarely seen even by North Koreans themselves. However, this document’s history and methods of application may be of some interest.
North Korea has four types of passports. Three of them are more or less standard: ordinary (blue), service (green) and diplomatic (red). The fourth, also blue, is called the “ordinary passport for an official trip” and is issued to sportsmen who participate in international competitions.
IN RUSSIAN, PLEASE
Early North Korean passports, issued in 1950s, did not have any inscription either in French – then the contemporary international standard – or in English. Instead, there were Korean, Russian and Chinese. The reasons were clear: North Koreans were supposed to visit USSR or China almost exclusively.
However, modern North Korean passports do, of course, comply with international standards – otherwise they would be invalid. But the DPRK still does not issue biometric passports (which are valid for 10 years instead of five). The process of manufacturing a biometric passport is expensive, and a North Korean bureaucrat will hardly consider valid the idea that it is inconvenient to change passports every five years. Visiting abroad is a rare honor – so stop complaining and go to get your passport, comrade.
Once I had an opportunity to look though a pile of valid DPRK passports. I noticed that every single one of them had a North Korean visa. Why? Well, in democratic countries there is a well-known scheme: a citizen may enter and exit the country without a visa, and a foreigner will need one to enter the country (or, in case of a visa-free regime, he or she will get a passport stamp as a visa substitute), while exiting the country will not require a visa as well. In the USSR foreigners were treated the same way, while citizens of the Soviet Union may only enter the country without a visa: in order to leave, they needed a special exit visa from the authorities.
North Korea brought the Soviet system to its logical end: both citizens and foreigners need both an entry and an exit visa. Usually they are issued as one “exit and entry,” but there are other cases as well. For example, once a group of Russian exchange students were issued only an entrance visa and North Korean immigration service refused to let them leave the country. The Russian embassy had to intervene and after a little scandal, the students were permitted to leave.
THE VISA STAMPS PROBLEM
How can an ordinary North Korean citizen get a passport and leave the country? Until recently, the answer was simple: it was impossible. However in the last few years the situation has changed. Now one can get a passport from the North Korean secret police for a bribe. Formally it is issued to “visit relatives in China,” but if the bribe is big enough, one can get a passport even when he or she has no relatives in China whatsoever. The price in Pyongyang in January 2014 was $3,000, or as they call it “30 leaves.” A “leaf” is a North Korean slang for a $100 bill. Of course, you are supposed to give money in American dollars, since people conducting serious business try to avoid dealing with their native won, especially after the confiscatory currency reform of 2009.
However, such a bribe would be completely unaffordable for an average DPRK citizen. An official salary varies from $0.5 to $2, so one cannot even dream of earning enough money to afford a passport by merely being on state service. Of course, those few who can afford it are the people who get rich thanks to their market activities. And of course, they get their passport not because they have always dreamed to see Shanghai’s Bund or Xian’s Terracotta Army, but for much more practical reasons.
Usually those happy few who manage to get a North Korean passport go to China in order to buy some Chinese goods – and then sell them in North Korea, earning some profit. When I was visiting Dandong – this is a Chinese town right next to the border – I saw a group of Northerners, who were passing customs. Each of them had an enormous luggage, a few dozen kilos per person.
The biggest problem for such traders are passport stamps. An ordinary North Korean passport has 36 pages; 30 of them are for stamps. Every legal visit for China means four stamps (exited the DPRK, entered the PRC, exited the PRC, entered the DPRK). One is lucky if immigration will put all these stamps on one page, sometimes they will occupy two.
Passport stamps are not the only things that are necessary – you, of course, did not forget that North Koreans need an exit visa? It will occupy another page. And one more will go for Chinese visa, since China is visa-free only for owners of diplomatic, service and endorsed for “an official trip” passports. This visa will probably be single-entry, as one is supposed to submit a visa application to the PRC consulate not directly, but through the secret police.
So every trip means that three pages are gone, and this means that a passport gives an opportunity to visit China ten times at most. So, in order to make profit, each trip should bring not less than $300 profit. And once there are no more clean pages left, one must pay another “30 leaves.”
The other way to use the passport is to quit North Korea permanently. A DPRK citizen with a passport can legally cross the border and take a train to Beijing – showing the passport with a visa to the Chinese police if necessary – then visit, for example, the Thai embassy in Beijing, get a tourist visa and a ticket to Bangkok and knock at the gate of the South Korean embassy in Thailand, asking the diplomats for help. This would be much cheaper than a standard way: hiring a broker and going a long, dangerous and illegal way through China.
Why a “passport escape” did not become a main way to leave the DPRK for the South? First, the secret police may simply not issue a passport to a person they consider suspicious. People who have relatives who are already in the South are simply afraid: if the secret police officer is not an idiot, he will probably guess why this citizen is in a sudden need for a passport – and the consequences may be unpredictable.
The second cause is rather tragicomic: many North Koreans simply do not wholly comprehend what a passport really is. They do think that this is not a document allowing you to travel anywhere, but rather a thing which will prevent a Chinese police from arresting you. I personally know a woman who got a passport and went to China legally, hired a blocker to go to Thailand. This does look like an utter stupidity: but how could she have known, if she had lived all her life is a small North Korean town and this was her first visit abroad?
Another example: one of my North Korean friends has a farther who is still in the North and sometimes she thinks about bringing him to South Korea as well. I asked her about the passport variant and she reacted in surprise: “But can you legally leave the Chinese city mentioned in your passport application in the secret police office?” I had to spend a half an hour explaining to her that neither the Chinese police not Thai diplomats would not be interested in what did a North Korean wrote in an application back in the DPRK. It seems however that as time goes by such a naïve ignorance will disappear, and more and more North Koreans will understand that a passport is not only a tool necessary to buy some Chinese clothes, but also a way to escape the loving embrace of the Great Marshal for good.
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