In Nikolai Gogol’s novel, Dead Souls, a corrupt government official turned scam artist shows up in a small Russian town and begins buying up “dead souls”—serfs who have died, but are still listed as chattel on the property tax rolls. Chichikov, the fraudster, finds willing—though distrustful—sellers anxious to unload dead serfs who are now purely a tax burden, but who are suspicious of Chichikov’s motives. It is eventually revealed that Chichikov’s plan is use his collection of paper serfs as collateral to obtain a large loan—and then abscond.
The novel sprang to mind as I was reading a recent piece in the always informative Daily NK which described the government’s desperate attempt to conduct an ad hoc census in flood stricken North Hamgyong province. The basic problem is that the government has lost track of how many people there are and where they are residing. Some people who were notionally living in one place when the floods struck were in fact living elsewhere. Some people were displaced from their residences and have dispersed. Some died in the flooding. Some may have left home—and then died in the flooding. As you can see, the possibilities are nearly endless.
The Daily NK ascribes the government’s action to concerns about defections as barbed wire fences in the border region were damaged or destroyed by the flooding.
The arbitrage possibilities are endless. The Ministry of People’s Security has an incentive to exaggerate deaths, because they don’t want to be blamed for people fleeing into China when the rivers freeze. “There are cases where individuals are declared dead by the regional Ministry of People's Security or district office without evidence, even though the family are still trying to determine the whereabouts of the missing family member,” according to an unnamed local source. (Queue up the “I’m not dead yet!” scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)
Likewise, people who were displaced have an incentive to remain below the radar, because they want to keep the trans-border migration option open. Hence the frantic house-to-house canvassing by local neighborhood committees described in the article.
But local officials may well have an incentive to double-count if international aid, or fiscal support, either directly from the center or in terms of retained taxes, are a function of population.
Or, bribe the Ministry of State Security to keep those dead souls on the books. North Korean officials are nothing if not pragmatic. I wonder if a trans-bureaucratic market has arisen in dead souls. Is Gogol taught in the DPRK school curriculum?