Most visitors to North Korea comment on how empty the country seems. Even in Pyongyang Sunday is the only day in which there are significant numbers of people on the streets. One European businessman who had returned from North Korea told Reuter, "My first reaction was to the silence, absolute silence. Even in China and Vietnam under socialist regimes, there are always people shouting, swearing, laughing. But here people don’t say a thing."

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Through the bus window, we observed the city’s old-fashioned bicycles, its pastel-colored mid-rises, its construction sites and rail depots. Experts had told me that the country’s economy was improving, and it appeared to be true. New cars lined the streets. Women wore high heels; men wore sneakers. Some rode electric bicycles, cellphones pressed against their ears....That afternoon, at the Pyongyang Zoo, hundreds of middle-class Pyongyang residents filed past healthy-looking seals, hippos and orangutans. Three little girls petted a tortoise, their eyes filled with wonder, as their mother snapped pictures. No military marches piped in through speakers, and no portraits of dictators adorned the walls. You can’t fake this, I thought. These were real people with loving families, having genuine fun. Some of them were almost certainly the same people I’d seen sobbing at the parade. The thought filled me with sadness. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2017]

Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick wrote in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2009): "If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is” North Korea. The country has a chronic lack of fuel and food and "is simply a blank...The qualities most prized in South Korea — height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes, English language fluency — are precisely those that” North Koreans “lack.

Zhao Bin, a businessman from the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, told the Los Angeles Times said that on his first visit to Pyongyang, in 2003, the electricity cut out every night. "The second time I went was almost 12 years later, and I think North Korea has developed a lot, and people's lives have improved dramatically." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2017]

“People sometimes think life there is silly—they go to Kim Jong-un church and put on wacky parades,” Michael Malice, author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, told Playboy.com. “But it’s not that way. In many ways it’s much worse than we imagine and in many ways much better, in that these people have humanity. When you go there and interact with them, they are shockingly normal, given that they are in the most abnormal country on earth.” [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]

Books: “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia” by Andrei Lakov (Oxford University Press, 2013); “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2010); “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters” by B.R. Myers (Melville House, 2010).

Paternalistic Government and a Lack of Freedom in North Korea

Ji-Min Kang wrote in NK News: “When you step back and observe the reality of North Korean society, you’ll see that people go on about their daily lives just like in the rest of the world. They fall in love, they get married, they have children. They respect their parents and become part of their local community.The window through which you can look into North Korea is very small and limited. But remember that the lifestyle of North Koreans isn’t very different from yours. The only things they don’t know about are freedom and human rights. [Source: Ji-Min Kang, NK News, the Guardian North Korea network, April 22, 2014]

Every North Korean carries an identity card and they can't travel outside their town of village without a permit. People are told by the government where they should live, what jobs to take, which subjects to study and often who to marry. North Korean citizens can not speak freely. A sarcastic remark about Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong-un, for example, can land them in a re-education camp, doing hard labor. Bicycles were banned until 1992 to keep people from traveling around. Shortwave radios are unavailable and people lucky enough to get a foreign-made radio have to get it registered with the police, who adjust the tuner so it only picks up Korea Central Broadcasting

North Koreans have important life decision made for them by the government. They are assigned to schools, jobs and housing. Much of their free time is taken by activities organized for them by the government. Sirens go off at 7:00am, noon and midnight, informing people when they should be working, eating and sleeping. All-girl brass bands play martial music to pep people up on their way to work. Martial music and speeches blare form loudspeakers in towns. On "Patriotic Labor" days, held every Friday all North Korean perform menial chores.

Unlike many Westerners, North Koreans have few worries about jobs and security. Bills are paid and decisions are made by the government. One defector told Newsweek, "In North Korea, your job is given to you." In South Korea he said, "I have to get job through free competition, and that could be difficult." "In North Korea, they tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. It took me 10 years get used to South Korea society," one defector told the Los Angeles Times.

The government is has the amazing ability to mobilize huge numbers or people at a short notice to do almost anything. There is no snow removing machinery so in the winter thousands of women with brooms clean ice and snow from roads and sidewalks. At a mass games to celebrate the 55th anniversary if the Korean Worker’s Party, more than a million people marched together in locked step.

Daily Struggles and Desires in North Korea

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Outside of the relative privilege of Pyongyang, the North Koreans said, it is still common for people to die of starvation, albeit not at the same rate as during the famine of the 1990s. Park Jeong Suk, a 50-year-old woman from Chongjin, said that from January through May of this year she had seen three elderly women out on the streets who appeared to be dead. “Young people have a hard time surviving themselves, so sometimes they have to kick the old people out of the house,” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2012]

Kim Kyung Ok, the woman from Pyongyang, counts herself among North Korea’s privileged by virtue of her residency in Pyongyang, although she, like others, barely eats rice and has to supplement her diet with wild greens. She is a surprisingly elegant woman with delicate skin like creased linen and thick, curly black hair that she ties back at the nape of her neck in a classically demure North Korean style. She is 5-foot-3, relatively tall for a woman of her generation, and taller than either of her adult sons, who she says were stunted by a hungry childhood. Her older son, 25, was recently discharged from the military because of malnutrition and is recuperating at home.

““A meal was usually just three potatoes,” she said. Kim begins her day at 5am, when she hikes out into the mountains to look for edible greens to feed her animals. The tastier pickings she marinates or stir-fries for her family. “You have to have two or three businesses going on to survive,” she said. Her younger son, 20, paid US$3 per month not to go to his factory job so he is able to help her during the day. Their workday extends well after midnight, as somebody in the family needs to keep watch over the animals. Bands of hungry soldiers often come between 1am and 3am.

“For all that effort, Kim’s family never gets to eat meat, which is too valuable. They trade it instead for rice and corn, occasionally killing a rabbit if they need to add meat to their diet. Like many North Koreans, Kim says she is still trying to recover from the government’s decision in 2009 to introduce a new currency, invalidating the old and wiping out the life’s savings of much of the population. “People had heart attacks from the shock. Many people died,” Kim said, adding that she lost nearly US$1,500. “I was saving money for my older son to get married. I thought I could buy him an apartment,” Kim said. Now her ambitions are more modest: She wants to buy her sons a camera and a mobile phone.

Laibach’s Impressions of North Korea

In August 2015, Slovenian avant-garde, industrial rock band Laibach became the first Western rock band to perform in North Korea, playing in front of about 2,000 people in two shows in Pyongyang. Kory Grow wrote in Rolling Stone: “The band, which formed in 1980 in what was then the communist country Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, performed a short set that was mostly composed of tunes from The Sound of Music and other covers, as well as some Laibach originals at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre and an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. The shows, dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, marked the 70th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan after World War II. [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

Rolling Stone asked Laibach’s leader Ivo Saliger what the band liked and disliked North Korea. Speaking for the band he said: ““Our first impression of the country was, "This is just like we expected... but it is somehow completely different." A few days later, we were thinking about an option to be able to "live and stay there to reach the higher wisdom in ourselves." The country may be poor and isolated, with a heavily oppressive political system, but the people are fantastic and they seem to possess the precious wisdom that we don't.” [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

“The general people of Korea are definitely the brightest jewel in the country. We couldn't find any cynicism, sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and other "Western characteristics" in their eyes, on their faces and in their behavior. It was nothing but sincere modesty, kindness, proudness and respect. There was no military parade for the 70th Anniversary of Freedom, only people dancing gracefully instead everywhere on the streets and parks of Pyongyang.

“Traffic policewomen are big fun to observe. They perform the most intriguing biomechanical, almost robotic ritual in the middle of the crossroads, probably all day long.” What we didn't like is the fact that we were not allowed to move around freely, but in a country that is almost hermetically isolated from the outside world and thus from all the media pollution, foreigners are toxic subjects that could potentially spreading their ideological disease to the inhabitants of this communist Utopia, the collective "Truman show."

“North Koreans laugh, smile and joke a lot and people across the country are incredibly well and "dignifying" dressed. They learn foreign languages; children begin to learn English at the age of seven. Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they want to do it slowly, on their own terms, and in a very different way than the Chinese.”

What would surprise people about North Korea? “They produce excellent beer. It is actually considered a soft drink and microbreweries there are popular. You can also drink beer freely from an open container outside on the street and smoke inside hotels and bars without a risk of prison. Pyongyang, with the rest of the country, is also probably the safest place in the world to walk around — if they let you walk around, of course. And for those who are into cannabis, North Korea is a very liberal place, where possession of cannabis is in fact essentially legal.”

Urban Life in North Korea

Urban population: 62..4 percent (compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent in Ethiopia). The rate of urbanization: 0. 82 percent annual rate of change (2015-20 estimated) The rate of urbanization, describes the projected average rate of change of the size of the urban population over the given period of time. Major urban areas: Pyongyang (capital): population: 3. 084 million. Other Major Cities: Hamhung, Chongjin, Wonsan Nampo, Sinuiju (all with populations of more than 300,000). Other Cities: Haeju, Hyesan, Kanggye, Kimch'aek, Najin,. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Library of Congress, July 200]

According to reports by defectors from North Korea and information gleaned from the limits imposed by "revolutionary tourism," urban life in Pyongyang probably resembles that in other East Asian cities, such as Seoul or Tokyo, in that living space is extremely limited. Little remains of traditional, however; architecture with its modern-style, high-rise buildings, Pyongyang appears to lack lively neighborhoods, as well as the local festivals and bustling market life of other Asian cities. Spacious highways span the metropolis, but seem devoid of traffic except for military vehicles. Unlike the residents of Tokyo and Seoul, however, residents of Pyongyang have access to expansive parks and green spaces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Beginning in the 1980s, several high-rise apartment complexes were built in Pyongyang, some of them reaching forty stories. The Kwangbok New Town, opened in 1989 as housing for representatives to the Thirteenth World Festival of Youth and Students, has been described as accommodating 25,000 families of the KWP elite. A sympathetic Japanese visitor reports that units are 110 square meters in area, with a kitchen-dining room and three or four additional rooms. Maintenance fees (not rent) for the housing of manual workers and office workers constitute 0.3 percent of their monthly income; utilities, including heating, cost about 3 percent of monthly income. Heating in rural areas during the frigid winters seems to be supplied primarily by charcoal briquettes. *

Daily Life in Pyongyang

Although urban standards of living — at least in Pyongyang — appear to be better than rural standards of living, observers note that city shops have limited supplies of necessities. Visitors to the capital during the celebration of Kim Il Sung's eightieth birthday (and as well at other times), however, have toured department stores full of goods. One widely repeated rumor suggests that crowds of local residents are paid by the day to throng department stores but that virtually the only goods actually on sale for them are soap and special consignments of notebooks. Otherwise, access to most department stores in Pyongyang is limited to KWP members and foreigners. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “At rush hour, lines stretched for blocks as Pyongyang commuters awaited buses and trams, which appeared to run no more frequently than once every 30 minutes. Well after sunset, the lines were still there, long, ghostly snakes of workers patiently queuing in the dark under street lamps switched off to save energy. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2007]

According to to CNN: At night, the city was eerily dark. Electricity appeared to be in short supply. On the pitch-black night-time drive from the airport to the hotel, our bus briefly illuminated pedestrians walking in the darkness on the shoulder of the highway. They didn't even have flashlights.

North Korean Apartment Shown to Western Journalists

Tim Sullivan wrote in National Geographic: “It’s hard to know how much of what Mr. Ho allows us to see is real. One day he takes us to meet a pair of working-class newlyweds in their new three-bedroom Pyongyang apartment, with its 42-inch flat-screen TV. The apartment is in one of the city’s showcase housing complexes, its outer skin a grid of blue and white bathroom tiles. These upscale towers near the Taedong River were built for the minuscule elite of the long-ruling Korean Workers’ Party, or KWP. But Mr. Ho wants to prove that they’re open to everyone. The couple, we are told, were given the apartment because the wife, Mun Kang Sun, had been declared a Hero of the Republic for her astonishing productivity at a textile factory. [Source: Tim Sullivan, National Geographic, October 2013]

“Mun, a demure woman in her early 30s who looks much older, sits quietly as her husband speaks. “All the people of my country are like one big family with the leaders as our parents,” says Kim Kyok, a technician at the same factory. He says his apartment shows how the regime cares for its people. But as he speaks, he picks nervously at his fingers. A trio of people — two minders and a tall, scowling man no one bothers to introduce — is listening to everything. In a country where meeting foreigners without official permission is illegal, the pressure on the couple is clearly immense.

“Always there are questions I can’t ask. Do the couple really live in that apartment? If they do, are they required to keep it constantly ready to show to foreigners, a living diorama of Kim Jong Un’s promises to bring prosperity to a people accustomed to poverty and famine? Are their neighbors all from the party elite?

Pyongyang’s Stylish Veneer Hides North Korea’s Despair

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Every time Kim Kyung Ok takes the bus into North Korea’s downtown Pyongyang, she is startled by changes that look positively futuristic in a country that had been stuck in a 1960s time warp. Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularised by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2012]

“Brand-new high-rise apartment buildings, which she has heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into mobile phones stuck to their ears. All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice. “Of course, they’re showing off with their mobile phones. Who wouldn’t?” She snapped.

“A decades-overdue modernisation of Pyongyang, have leavened the unremitting gloom that has hung over North Korea since famine killed off nearly 10 per cent of the population in the 1990s. Pyongyang’s facelift was put in place under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, who timed the new construction for completion in 2012 to mark the centennial of the birth of his father, Kim Il Sung. University students were press-ganged into doing much of the construction work. The Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-storey pyramid that has loomed empty and unfinished over the city for two decades — a national joke — is under construction again. The project is funded by Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunications firm that began mobile phone service in North Korea a few years ago. “Now people can use mobile phones to do business and check on prices,” said the man from Suncheon.

In contrast to the Stalinist concrete blocks, Pyongyang’s new apartment buildings have modernist curved façades and are illuminated at night in geometric patterns. There is a new airport terminal, a “Dolphinarium” at the amusement park and an upscale Singapore-funded restaurant and department store. In front of the Pyongyang train station, a large digital screen displays North Korean television.

“It all looks new and shiny and beautiful in a country that is so poor,” said Jerrold Green, president of the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy, who led a delegation to Pyongyang six weeks ago. He warned, however, against excessive optimism, comparing the transition in North Korea to Syria in 2000, when Bashar Al Assad succeeded his father. “We heard almost exactly the same. ‘He speaks English, he went to school abroad, his wife dresses beautifully, so this must mean change,’” Green said. “And you can see what happened.” North Koreans interviewed across the border in China say the changes so far are superficial and have done little to ease the daily task of just staying alive. “There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym

Behind the Veneer in North Korea

Tim Sullivan wrote in National Geographic: “You can see that North Korean toughness in the middle-aged women sitting on the ground on a frigid night, seemingly comfortable in cheap cotton overcoats as they watch a fireworks display. You can see the longing for knowledge in Pyongyang, where electricity often disappears without warning and where a late-night drive can find dozens of people downtown, standing under streetlights with newspapers and schoolwork. Even after the bizarre mass rallies and the pledges to die for the motherland end, there are informal gatherings with surprising echoes of small-town America, as gossiping old women and flirting young people fill the streets. Sometimes, though, the truth about ordinary North Korean life is hidden right inside the Potemkin displays. [Source: Tim Sullivan, National Geographic, October 2013]

“Like the dancing. I first saw it on a Sunday evening in Pyongyang, in a clearly orchestrated show of uniformity and loyalty, when nearly 500 couples danced in the shadow of three stone fists thrust into the sky. Each fist wielded a tool — a hammer, a sickle, and a pen — that together formed the symbol of the KWP. The men wore short-sleeve shirts and ties. Women wore the filmy polyester dresses that pass here for traditional clothing. They twirled in well-practiced circles and between songs stood silently in pairs. Few people smiled. Most had the blank expressions common at mass rallies, where boredom, resignation, and patriotism often mix together. Officials rushed around, barking at anyone who fell out of step. That night I couldn’t imagine anyone celebrating life with the stiff dances of that staged event.

“But a few nights later, at about 2 a.m., I opened my hotel-room window to look out over the city. The streets were empty. There were no security convoys, no movements of soldiers, nothing unusual. I heard music somewhere in the distance. Leaning out, I could see lights blazing at a small building a couple of blocks away. It was a party. Looking through binoculars, I could see dozens of people gathered in the building’s courtyard. Bottles were being passed around. I could see the orange glow of cigarettes.

“Many of the people were dancing. It was the same dance I’d seen a few days earlier, but with the swing and sway of people enjoying themselves. Listening hard, I heard snatches of the same music wafting through the night. Were they celebrating a birthday? A promotion? A wedding? I’ll never know. But it was a reminder of what goes on when no one knows a journalist is watching. “We are normal,” a former North Korean black marketeer who now lives in Seoul once told me. “Please don’t forget this. People live, people compete to get jobs, people fight. There are the basic elements of life like there are in South Korea or the United States.” Or anywhere.

Rural Life in North Korea

Rural population: 37. 6 percent. (Compared to 17 percent in Great Britain and 79 percent in Ethiopia). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In the countryside life can be quite tough, lonely and tedious. People wash clothes in streams and ford rivers with bundles on their backs. Tractors are the only pieces of machinery seen in many places the countryside. Workers still cut the grass with scythes. Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick wrote in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2009): “Along railroad tracks you can see casually-dressed groups of men siting around doing nothing. It is not clear whether they are railway workers on a break or something else. Asking questions about what they are doing can land you in jail.” [Source: Yannis Kontos, National Geographic, June 2008]

In the early 1990s, women in Chongjin city stitched together sacks from rags of cotton canvas and collected discarded toothbrushes, soap, toothpaste, shoes and dishes and took the train to rural villages to trade for food. Three cakes of soap could be traded for four pounds of corn. So many women fed their families in this fashion. One defector told U.S. News and World Report, "the trains home were so packed with sacks of grain that you could hardly walk down the aisle."

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Any nod to improved living standards was even more difficult to discern in the countryside, where people could be seen walking for miles, pushing creaky bicycles up hills, moving listlessly across fields, trimming grass along the cracked highway by hand. Even the military seemed short of transportation: Small groups of soldiers periodically tried to flag down a rare passing vehicle before realizing it was a tourist bus filled with foreigners.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2007

Hwang Myong Sim, a government guide and interpreter at Jangchon, Model Farm shown to Western journalists, said her family of five typically receives rice eggs, soy sauce, oil, salt, bean paste, vegetables and sometimes potatoes in her monthly rations from the state. The allotments are based on household size, she said. Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Hong Son Suk, a former primary school teacher in her 50s, was asked to open her home at Jangchon to foreign reporters to show them how well off she was. A whitewashed one-story structure with a blue roof and a dog on the front stoop, it featured amenities including bamboo floors, two chest-style freezers, a washing machine, a stereo, a flat-screen TV and DVD player, telephone and an electric fan. As is required in all North Korean homes, portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were hung on the wall. “We are leading a happy life under the warm love of our leaders,” Hong said, government minders and interpreters watching over her interaction with the foreign reporters. Jo, asked by one journalist whether people blamed the government for food shortages, reacted with a blank look. “This is not even a question for us, we cannot understand this question,” he said. A guide quickly jumped in: “Our people don’t blame,” he said. [Source: Julie Makinen Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2016]

Rural Development in North Korea

Resource development in agriculture is a crucial means for increasing agricultural production, recognizing the unfavorable natural endowments — topography, climate, and soil. This development consists of what North Koreans call "nature-remaking" projects. These projects generally increase the quantity of arable land, and rural investment projects, which, in turn, increase the yield of the available land through increased capital and improved technology. "Nature-remaking" projects include irrigation, flood control, and land reclamation. Rural investment projects consist of mechanization, electrification, and "chemicalization" — that is, the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Despite priority allocation of state funds for heavy industry, North Korea has achieved considerable success in irrigation since the Korean War. Irrigation projects began with paddy fields and then continued to non-paddy fields. Irrigated land increased from 227,000 hectares in 1954 to 1.2 million hectares in 1988. North Korea claimed that paddy field irrigation was completed by 1970. In 1990 there were more than 1,700 reservoirs throughout the country, watering 1.4 million hectares of fields with a ramified irrigation network of 40,000 kilometers, which irrigated about 70 percent of the country's arable land. Water-jetting irrigation of non-paddy fields was introduced in the 1980s. In 1989 construction began on a 400- kilometer canal by diverting the flow of the Taedong River along its west coast.*

Rural electrification has progressed rapidly. The proportion of villages supplied with electricity increased from 47 percent in 1953 to 92 percent of all villages by the end of 1961. The process of extending electrical lines to the rural areas reportedly was completed in 1970. The annual supply of electricity to the rural areas reached 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours toward the end of the 1980s.*

Images of North Korean Daily Life by Rimjingang,

Rimjingang, a Japan-based web magazine that has released a book in English. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times,“ it has used secret cameras to “peek inside an illegal market where hungry children scavenge food from the ground. They offer images of a busy bus terminal patrolled by soldiers, a North Korean prison and a town where even children are put to work in a coal mine.” Rimjingang footage “taken surreptitiously from a speeding motorcycle, showed the Soonchun Vinylon factory, which many defectors claim has been secretly used to produce lethal chemicals, including nerve gas. But the video showed a deserted complex slouching forlornly on a weed-strewn stretch of countryside. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2009]

On the Rimjingang book, Chris Green wrote in the Daily NK: “There is the story of market life in Haeju, a city on North Korea’s south western flank, obtained and revealed by reporter Shim Ui Chun in late 2008. Six interviews with people from different walks of North Korean life, the picture that Shim builds exceeds that of any amount of analysis done by outsiders. Why do market inspectors break their own rules and confiscate even small packages from traders? Because “they say their orders come from their supervisors, and they get to do whatever they want.” Why is the price of the raft from Haeju to Nampo so high today? “Because the authorities are cracking down on food trading so they stopped the ferry.” How much is a roofless stall in Haeju Market per day? “3000-5000 won.” Why is that truck there? “It takes the prisoners to a location where they are forced to work with no pay.” [Source: Chris Green, Daily NK, December 17, 2010]

Elsewhere in the book, there is a day by day account of the deteriorating situation immediately after the currency redenomination of November, 2009 by a woman from Kanggye in Jagang Province, there are interviews with young people as they reflect on their lost youth and the absence of anything for people like them to do, there are stories of prisoners, stories of famine, stories of unimaginable luxury in the homes of the rich and unimaginable suffering in the homes of the poor.

High Food Prices, Low Wages, Guarded Cornfields in North Korea

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The price of rice (so important that the word for rice is synonymous with food) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators. “Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 48 kilometres north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China. At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low [often less than US$1 per month] that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2012]

“As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. But for ordinary North Koreans, a few small changes have made life easier. Just one month after Kim Jong Il’s death, authorities lifted socialist-style restrictions on the markets that limited the sale of staples and forbade men and younger women from market activity, the rationale being that they ought to be in their factories.

In April 2012, regulations on vendors in Pyongyang were eased, allowing for a proliferation of small kiosks selling beverages and snacks. North Koreans expected an announcement of economic reforms at a special session of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Working Women and Modern Family Life in North Korea

Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “North Korea doesn’t rank well on global measures of equality and human rights, but there’s one area in which it outperforms the west: the DPRK is one of the few countries in the world where women earn more than men on average. Although it is a male-dominated society, women bring in more than 70 percent of household income because of their dominance in the unofficial market economy. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]

“These days it is usually the father who takes care of the children while the mother works all the day in a market or the private sector. Apart from work and child-rearing, adults have to attend to regular ideological sessions in their local organisations. However under Kim Jong-un, these sessions are less regular and less vigorous than in the Kim Il-sung age.

“But life is not only about work and politics. People do rest, spending their free time with their friends and relatives.North Koreans like cinema, especially Soviet films, although films made in the DPRK have a reputation for being dull. Just like everywhere else in the world, North Koreans like visiting each other, dancing – often in the open air – and strolling. Few people walk at night as the country is chronically short of electricity and the streets are completely dark once the sun goes down. Young people sometimes take advantage of this for courtship.

“An important event for Koreans from both North and South is a parent’s 60th birthday (known as hwanggap). Children are expected to throw a party and lay on good food for guests, partly as a way to show their parents how successful they have become. For some time the North Korean authorities tried to suppress this custom but in 1972, when Kim Il-sung turned 60, hwanggap became a respected tradition instead of vestige of feudalism.

Professional Career in North Korea

Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “The most prestigious careers are party, military, diplomatic and academic placements, and the likelihood of getting one of these depends on having good songbun and being well connected. Without these you may as well give up. For instance, if your grandfather was a professor at a Japanese university or a communist from a non-Kim Il-sung faction you can forget about building a reputable career. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]

“Those choosing a military career stay in the army after their conscription term is over. As there are many applicants not everyone is able to become an officer, but a persistent person with acceptable songbun can expect to eventually rise to the rank of colonel. The first step necessary for a diplomatic career would be a diploma from a university like the Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages or the University of Foreign Relations. The best graduates are offered a choice: you could join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or become a guide who works with foreigners, for example. Those who choose the former and pass all inspections are given a red diplomatic passport and sent to an embassy to work. This is not always glamorous. Under Kim Il-sung North Korea did not have enough money to support low-ranking diplomats, so an attaché or a third secretary in the DPRK’s embassy in Romania, for example, would have had to take a train though the Soviet Union instead of a flight. The trip would have easily taken more than two weeks.

“For a successful academic career one is required to publish articles. Because the North Korean academic community is extremely isolated (there is no internet) the level of research is not very high. Articles have to be submitted to North Korean journals and every one has to include a quote from one of the Kims introduced by one of the following formulae: “The Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il-sung taught the following…”, “The Great Guide respected comrade Kim Jong-il instructed the following…” or “The Beloved and respected comrade Kim Jong-un said the following…” This rule is followed in every article, including science subjects and mathematics. First a quote from a Kim and only then may you begin your research.”

Market Forces on North Korean Society

Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “Not everyone is able to rise up the ranks. Some people become bureaucrats, others are employed by a state-run enterprise. But the majority of the middle class are in some way connected with markets. Since virtually everything from food and clothes to appliances and books is bought and sold there, the North Korean middle class mostly consists of market traders. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]

“The lower classes in North Korea are workers and farmers. “Peasants” might be the more correct term for the latter, since a person working on a collective farm has to surrender their harvest to the state, and only under Kim Jong-un have they been given the right to keep part of their harvests. Workers are not in a better position, with most earning about US$1 or US$2 a month.

“North Korea, being a communist country, has a pension system, although payouts are only about US 50 cents a month. Under Kim Il-sung this was manageable because the elderly also had access to the state’s public distribution system. But now, with the distribution chain largely dysfunctional, old people go to markets to trade for as long as they can. Otherwise they have to rely on their children for survival.

Market in Rason

Darmon Richter visited Rason near the Russian border in northeastern North Korea in 2013. On the market there he wrote: “The market was a sprawling maze of wooden tables, overflowing with everything from fruit to hand tools. Immediately upon our entrance, a wave seemed to move through the crowd as several hundred pairs of eyes turned to assess the intrusion. If the streets of Pyongyang and other North Korean cities may appear empty, even desolate at times, this place was the exact opposite... and I was struck by the sense of having stumbled across that fabled thing which seems so hopelessly impossible to find: the 'real' North Korea. [Source: Darmon Richter, The Bohemian Blog, March 16, 2016]

“One elderly man in a tired military uniform followed us through the market, scowling from a distance. Several times I felt tiny hands patting at my trouser pockets, then turned, to see dirty-faced children peering out from the crowds. On one occasion I was confronted by an actual beggar - it's still the first and only time I've seen a North Korean ask a foreigner for money, and something which the DPRK leadership does its absolute best to stamp out.

“At one point we bumped into a few of the girls from the massage parlour we'd visited in Rason. They stopped browsing to chat with us, and, for just the briefest of moments, I could almost have believed this wasn't the strangest place I had ever been. Things were to get a whole lot stranger though, as we approached the covered stalls at the heart of the market. While the outer yard had been stocked with fruits, vegetables and all manner of seafood, Rason's indoor market is a repository for every kind of bric-a-brac you could care to think of... and most of it imported from China.

“Shoes, toys, make-up, lighters, DIY tools that look around 40 years old, clothing, military uniforms (which we were forbidden from buying), spices, chocolates, soft drinks, dried noodles, bottled spirits, beer and a whole aisle lined with mounds of dry, hand-picked tobacco.”

Shortages in North Korea

There have been shortages of toothpaste and soap. North Koreans used salt instead of toothpaste and made their own soap from lye and fish oil. Aid workers say workers with no shoes wrapped rags around their feet and people walked in hail and freezing temperatures without coats and socks. An organization made up of pensioners, women and handicapped people called the August 3 Movement made products out of leftover produce, scrap and raw materials. The group produced 6,000 different goods, including soybean paste, candles, potholders and ceramics.

Power is regularly cut off for hours on end. Cities often have no power from 8:00pam to 4:00pm. When the power is on it is not uncommon to have eight power outages a day. Towns and villages often get electricity for five or 10 days a month and then only for an hour or two at a time. When the electricity is on it is so limited that there is barely enough to light 20-watt bulbs.

By some estimates in 2000 North Korea had less than a third of the electricity-generating capacity it had in 1990s. One expert on North Korea told the Los Angeles Times, “Their power plants are only operating at about 30 percent capacity, and of what is generated about 30 percent is lost because of deteriorating power lines and cables.

Looking across the border from China, one journalist said she saw only three small lights on a the medium size North Korean town of Namyang. Night time satellite photographs of North Korea show a speck of light in Pyongyang surrounded by black while neighboring South Korea and Japan are galaxies of light.

The effects of electricity shortages are worse than in, say, rural Africa, which never had electricity to begin with, because North Korea was completely electrified and had their electricity taken away. Many North Koreans blame the United States for forcing North Korea to shut down its nuclear power plants and not fulfilling its promises to build new power plants and provide fuel and oil.

Effects of Fuel and Electricity Shortages

Without electricity people can’t watch televison. When night comes many people simply go to sleep. In many places even candles and oil lamps are in short supply. Refrigerators are used for storing shoes. In apartments people climb the staircases because they elevators aren’t working. When electricity is turned on there is often a big hurrah as if North Korea just scored a goal in the World Cup. In some places the only lights are spotlights used to illuminate the statues of Kim Il Sung. It is not unusual to see schoolchildren doing their homework assignments under these lights because they have no lights at home.

People use coal and wood to warm their houses and cook food. Even in Pyongyang you can see piles of firewood piled on apartment balconies. In the famine in 1996 and 1997 people were cooking and warming their houses foraged twigs and straw, apparently because coal miners were to weak to produce an adequate supply of coal.

Fuel, energy and electricity shortages have contributed to the collapse of industry, agriculture, communications, transportation and the economy. There is no fuel for trucks to deliver crops. Bridges were built with hand tools because no machinery is available. Spare parts are unavailable because the factories that build them are paralyzed by frequent power outages.

Factories are silent from lack of oil and electricity. Farmers tried running their tractors by burning corn husks instead of gasoline. Mines were shut down because ore could not be transported without fuel. Fishing boats couldn’t go out to sea because there is no fuel. Construction cranes look rusted in place. Hydroelectric plants shut down due to lack of spare parts. Bolts and other parts have been salvaged from electric towers.

Trains stopped running. Even in Pyongyang, there were hardly any vehicles on the streets and many of them were ox carts not cars. Journalist Orville Schell, who traveled in 1997 from Pyongyang to Kaesong, a city near the DMZ, said he counted only 10 vehicles on the 100-kilometer stretch of highway and seven of them were broken down on the side of the highway.

Watching South Korean Drama in North Korea

A considerable amounr of illegal, black-market entertainment, mostly DVDs with South Korean dramas and K-Pop recordings, make their way to North Korea, mostly smuggled in from China. Radio Free Asia reported: A senior North Korean official “revealed that some 70 percent of the country’s 25 million people actively watch TV shows and movies from the South, sources in the North told RFA. Pyongyang’s latest hard line against the soft power of Seoul has taken the form of video lectures by officials showing people being punished for mimicking popular South Korean written and spoken expressions, a source who watched a lecture told RFA’s Korean Service. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

“According to the speaker in the video, 70 percent of residents nationwide are watching South Korean movies and dramas,” said a resident of Chongjin, the capital of North Hamgyong province, where the videos were shown at all institutions on July 3 and 4. “The speaker said with alarm that our national culture is fading away,” said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons. It was not clear how the statistics were derived. “In the video, an official from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] discussed the effort to eliminate South Korean words, and examples of how those using them were punished,” the source said.

The video lectures had footage of people being arrested and interrogated by the police for speaking or writing in the South Korean style. “Dozens of men and women had their heads shaved and they were shackled as investigators interrogated them,” the source said. Beyond regional dialects, aspects of the languages of North and South have diverged during their seven decades of separation. North Korea has tried to elevate the status of the Pyongyang dialect, but widespread consumption of South Korean cinema and soap operas has made the Seoul sound popular among the young.

South Korea, with twice the population and 50 times the GDP of North Korea, has emerged in the 21st century as a major cultural powerhouse, exporting billions worth of films, television shows and K-pop songs and gaining popularity in many diverse countries. “It is too late to prevent the people from being tempted by South Korean culture, since its attraction is already deeply rooted,” said the Chongjin source.

Nevertheless, the source said, punishments may become even more severe than what the video depicted. “Starting this month, the authorities will utilize various techniques, including more severe legal punishment, along with ideological education projects, to prevent the further infiltration of South Korean culture,” said the source. An official of the Pyongyang municipal judicial agency said stricter punishments are being implemented this week.

“Authorities again strongly ordered Pyongyang and other urban areas across the country to severely punish those who imitate South Korean language,” the official, who declined to be named, told RFA. The source said the order came on the heels of a crackdown within the capital, lasting from mid-May to early July. “They found that surprisingly many teenagers were imitating South Korean speaking styles and expressions,” the official said.“In May, a total of 70 young people were arrested after the two-month crackdown by the Pyongyang police, which came as the Highest Dignity issued an order to ‘strongly wage a struggle against a culture of unusual thought’,” the official said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The arrested youth are suspected of failing to protect their identities and ethnicities by imitating and disseminating South Korean words and pronunciation,” said the official. The official said that their arrests and interrogations were filmed, so they could be used in the video that eventually was shown in the mandatory lectures. “From some time ago in Pyongyang, the trend of watching South Korean movies and dramas and imitating South Korean words and writings took hold among young people, but it wasn’t much of a problem until now, as [police] had taken bribes when catching them in the act,” said the official.

“However, the authorities’ position is that the education stage for teenagers is over, so the party’s legal and administrative punishment for allowing the invasion of South Korean culture will be much more severe in the future,” the source said.North Korean authorities revised the Criminal Law in 2015, raising the maximum sentence to 10 years in prison for “capitalist cultural invasion,” a vague term that refers to watching or listening to media from outside North Korea. The Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, warned youth May 26 not to view foreign media, saying, “If you cannot remain vigilant against a single movie or a song, and imitate it, the national culture will gradually become discolored, and the rotten lifestyle of materialism will prevail.” In June, RFA reported that a specific sarcastic phrase uttered in a South Korean drama that authorities saw as disrespectful to Kim Jong Un had become popular among North Koreans of all ages, and that the government was scrambling to find ways to eliminate the phrase.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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