The elite in North Korea is made up of perhaps one or two million people. They have access to the best housing and schools and own cell phones and maybe cars. When food and medical supplies are short they get first dibs at what is available. The status is often based on kissing the asses of their superiors or having some special skill — like nuclear bomb making — that the regime great values. The elite owe their existence to the regime and have little or nothing to gain by fighting it. In turn the North Korean leadership goes to great lengths to support the elite because they each prop up the other.

According to U.S. News and World Report: Like other dictatorships, North Korea has an elite ruling class that enjoys some basic privileges of modern life, such as indoor plumbing, automobiles, meat, coffee and a few luxury goods. There's a middle stratum that has sufficient food and, occasionally, new clothes, but not much else.”

During the Kim Jong Il era, the North Korean elite drove around in cars with a 216 prefix on their license plate, representing Kim Jong Il's February 16 birthday. During that time in the 2000s, nearly a third of the cars seen on the streets of Pyongyang were Mercedes Benzs. Before sanctions against the regime set in, foreign currency stores sold foreign items — such as imported cognac and whiskey and electronic items — that few could afford. [Source: U.S. News and World Report]

Two status symbols of the Kim Jong Il were a bottle of cognac and a group photograph taken with Kim Il Sung. To cater to the elite in Pyongyang there are Japanese-style karaoke bars with a cover charge of US$25 and Hennessy cognac selling for US$300 a bottle. Squid barbecues on the beach are popular among the well-connected as are Western movies such as “Love Story” and “Mary Poppins” as well as film from Southeast Asian countries. Young people on the street wear jeans, sneakers and T-shirts with phrases like "Stay Cool." [Source: U.S. News and World Report]

In the Kim Il Sung era of the 1970s and 80s, when ordinary North Koreans had more respect for their leaders and the elite, workers, soldiers and students sometimes raised their fist in salute as cars with officials passed by as a sign of respect to people in positions of authority. [Source: H. Edward Kim, National Geographic, August, 1974]

The North Korean elite today don’t command the same kind of respect. Maya Oppenheim wrote in The Independent: “Living in “Pyonghattan”, the upper echelons of society, who tend to hold official government positions, adopt a highly different lifestyle to the rest of country. While others struggle to subsist, they spend money on designer clothes, eating in fancy restaurants and making the most of a range of new amusements Kim Jong-Un is busy building for them. But life remains stark for the overwhelming majority still living in a country with a regime a UN report accused of crimes against humanity, including systematic extermination, torture, rape, forced abortions and starvation.” [Source: Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, September 9, 2016]

According to the Washington Post: “North Korea as a whole remains economically backward — industry has all but collapsed, and even in Pyongyang, the official salary remains less than US$10 a month — but the rise in recent years of a merchant class has created a whole layer of nouveaux riches in the capital city.”

Donju: Masters of Money

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: In North Korea's showcase capital city, Pyongyang, a small number of elites are enjoying unprecedented access to luxury goods and fancy restaurants. They like fast fashion from Zara and H&M. They work out to be seen as much as to exercise. They drink cappuccinos to show how cosmopolitan they are. Some have had their eyelids done to make them look more Western. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 14, 2016]

““Donju,” or “masters of money,” have emerged with the tentative moves toward becoming a market economy that began about 15 years ago but has picked up momentum under Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader who took over the reins of North Korea at the end of 2011. The donju usually hold official government positions — in ministries or the military, running state businesses abroad or trying to attract investment into North Korea. On the side, they trade in everything they can get their hands on, including flat-screen TVs and apartments.

“The money that they are making now flows through society, through the markets that are present in every population center to the high-end restaurants of Pyongyang. “Kim Jong Un is very ―pro-market. His policy has essentially been benign neglect,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian historian specializing in Korea who once studied in Pyongyang. “A number of North Korean capitalists I’ve talked to say that they’ve never had it so good.” Kim, 33, has made it a high priority to improve the lives of his fellow millennials in particular. He has ordered the construction of amusement parks and water parks and skate parks, even a dolphinarium and a ski resort. Around the capital, volleyball and tennis courts are full of young people.

“Until last year, Lee Seo-hyeon and her brother Lee ―Hyeon-seung, now 30, were part of this privileged set. They lived in China and went to a university there. Their father, a high-ranking North Korean official based in China, was tasked with earning foreign currency for the regime. But they traveled back and forth to Pyongyang. Lee Hyeon-seung described his teenage life in Pyongyang, one that involved listening to Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys in the days before the South Korean wave of K-pop and schmaltzy dramas had arrived.

Cell Phones, Cars and a Rising Middle Class

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post:About 3 million North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, have cellphones, including Arirang smartphones. Ask North Koreans about their children, and chances are they’ll whip out their phones and show you photos....A fancy supermarket stocked with imported products was selling Australian beef, Norwegian salmon, craft beer and granola — all at astronomical prices. The store was empty when The Post visited at 8 on a Saturday evening, but others who have visited said they have seen Koreans shopping there. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 14, 2016]

Cosmetics are considered "an ostentatious display of wealth," according to the KINU report. South Korean brands are preferred over inferior Chinese or North Korean products.“Plastic surgery, already commonplace in the South, has come to Pyongyang. Double-eyelid operations — to give Asian eyes a more Western look — are de rigeur, as are nose jobs. Doing your eyelids costs between US$50 and US$200, depending on the skill of the surgeon. You can get a visa to leave the country for medical reasons, but plastic surgery is not considered a valid medical reason,” Lee Seo-hyeon said. “Being beautiful and being handsome are considered a competitive advantage.”

Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic: “ Private car ownership is increasing and, while the infamous traffic jams of Beijing are nowhere to be seen, it’s not uncommon to see the notorious black-tinted Audis, so beloved by Chinese officials, prowling around — though most sedan-style vehicles seem to have been manufactured abroad sometime in the 1980s. There are now around 2 million mobile phones in the country, purportedly North Korean made but, in fact, mostly manufactured under license by Chinese firms such as Huawei and then rebranded and repackaged with special “Juche” software. [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]

“Apart from the ruling elite, these are owned by a growing middle class, who, having grown rich from black markets and grassroots capitalism, are eager to consume what scant riches the country offers: Evenings out at hip new haunts like the Haedanghwa restaurant-spa; US$50,000-dollar high-rise apartments; flatscreen TVs; imported whisky, cognac, and steak sold in exclusive places like the Paradise Shopping Center.”

“But how much of the change is skin-deep, and how much is real? So much of this development is about image,” Andray Abrahamian, who is British and helps run an exchange program that provides financial training to North Koreans, told the Washington Post. One woman who took part in his training program started a coffee shop. “The coffee shops don’t make much money. It’s just a signifier that you’re fancy and cosmopolitan,” he said.

Life in ‘Pyonghattan’

“Pyonghattan” is the name given to world inhabited by the Pyongyang-based North Korean elite. Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: North Korea now has a 1 percent. And you’ll find them in“Pyonghattan,” the parallel ―universe inhabited by the rich kids of the Democratic People’s Republic. “We’re supposed to dress conservatively in North Korea, so people like going to the gym so they can show off their bodies, show some skin,” said Lee Seo-hyeon, a 24-year-old who was, until 18 months ago, part of Pyongyang’s brat pack. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 14, 2016]

“Women like to wear leggings and tight tops — Elle is the most popular brand among women, while men prefer Adidas and Nike — she said. When young people go to China, they travel armed with shopping lists from their friends for workout gear. “If it weren’t for the little ―badges, they could be South Koreans,” said one expat in Pyongyang, referring to the pins of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, the first two generations of leaders, that North Koreans must wear over their hearts. “They’re paying 10 to 15 euros for a meal,” he said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the trouble his remarks could cause for him.

“There are other signs that more people have more disposable income. Five or six taxi companies are operating — although the drivers grumble that business isn’t great — and a reporter spotted several people with pet dogs, something that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago. Women, perhaps seeing a green light from Ri Sol Ju, Kim’s fashionable wife, have started wearing brighter and trendier clothes.

“For the average Pyonghattanite, fast fashion from such brands as Uniqlo, Zara and H&M is affordable and popular. “All my friends lived abroad and everyone would bring stuff like this back,” Lee Hyeon-seung said. But there were limits. Sleeveless tops and too-short skirts are out, as is hair dye. “If your clothes are too radical or extreme, or they’re not in line with North Korean style, the ―police might take your name and then your name will be broadcast on the radio,” Lee Seo-hyeon said. The siblings defected, to get ― her with their mother and ― high-ranking father, to South Korea in 2014, and they now are in Northern Virginia, hoping to go to college in Washington this fall.

Leisure Complex and Fancy Places in Pyongyang

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “At a leisure complex next to the bowling alley in the middle of Pyongyang, they run on the treadmills, which show Disney cartoons on the monitors, or do yoga. The complex also has a fancy restaurant that advertises for wedding functions — glitzy ―venues cost as much as US$500 an hour — and a coffee shop, where most drinks are priced between US$4 and US$8, although an iced mocha costs US$9. “It’s a cool spot. When you’re in there it feels like you could be anywhere in the world,” said Abrahamian, He recently played squash on one of the three courts at the center. “It’s not cheap. It’s a few dollars for a class. It’s definitely for people who have disposable income.” [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 14, 2016]

On a trip to Pyongyang in May 2016 “three Washington Post reporters went to a German-themed restaurant near the Juche Tower that had exposed brick walls and seven kinds of North Korean beer on tap. A huge screen showed ice skating. On the menu, there was a prime steak with a baked potato for US$48, although the Wiener schnitzel was more reasonable, at US$7. Most of the North Koreans in the restaurant seemed to be opting for the local food, although at US$7 for a bowl of bibimbap — the price you’d pay in Seoul — it was hardly cheap.

“At the Sunrise complex, there’s a sushi bar and a barbecue restaurant, where groups of North Koreans were enjoying grilled meat — the waitress recommended cuts of beef that were US$50 for a one-person portion — and bottles of soju, Koreans’ favorite alcoholic beverage, on a recent Saturday night. A North Korean couple pulled the bamboo curtain across the front of their table when they heard foreigners arrive. In Pyonghattan, discretion is key.

The best hotel in Pyongyang is the 44-floor Koryo Hotel. An elevator operator there sports a bright yellow jacket with embellishments of rhinestones, sequins and lace — complete with a fox pin. Not far away, smartly uniformed women team up to make a pie at an upscale pizza restaurant on Mirae Scientists Street.

The high-rise apartment buildings that have popped up in the center of Pyongyang, from the Changjon complex near Kim Il Sung Square to the Mirae Scientists Street, look impressive from a distance. But up close, tiles are falling off buildings that are only a year old and electricity supply remains so patchy that the most-sought-after apartments are the ones on the lower stories. Who wants a 20th-floor walk-up?

With the Mirae Scientists Street complete, Kim has ordered the development of Ryomyong Street, named for the place where “the dawn breaks in the Korean revolution.” Kim said the area would contain “magnificent skyscrapers” — one is planned to rise 70 stories — with eco-friendly design incorporating solar panels and greenhouses. These may all be part of a Potemkin village, but they nonetheless underscore the fact that in North Korea, poverty is no longer equally shared.

Pyongyang's Restaurants That Cater to Elite

There are now a number of semi-private restaurants in Pyongyang. Andrei Lankov wrote in NK News: “The restaurant scene in Pyongyang is thriving. It is never a problem to find a really good meal if you can afford it – and you know where to look. The newer, semi-private eateries tend to keep a low-profile, and often have their windows covered with heavy curtains. The signboards are also small, if not absent, so outsiders would have few clues of the luxury inside. Most new restaurants have private rooms used for closed banquets of the bureaucrats and new rich - which are closely connected but somewhat different groups. In some cases they do not limit themselves to gastronomical pleasures: several places have a reputation for doubling as elite brothels. This was indirectly confirmed by official North Korean documents recently: when Jang Song Taek was purged in December 2013, the indictment mentioned both his fondness for private rooms in the expensive restaurants and his dalliances with women. [Source: Andrei Lankov for NK News, The Guardian, June 11, 2014]

“All these pleasures might appear cheap for a visiting foreigner, but for the average North Korean restaurants are prohibitively expensive. A dinner in a regular upmarket restaurant would cost about US$7-10 (excluding alcohol), but the most expensive places charge around US$30-40. To appreciate how out of reach this is, remember that the average monthly salary of a university professor in North Korea is about 80 cents. In most cases, the consumers pay in foreign currency, usually Chinese yuan, which has long been a currency of choice in the up-market North Korean shops.

“Pyongyang has its share of restaurants serving foreign cuisine - one can enjoy Japanese sushi and assorted Chinese dishes as well as European-style food. A local Pyongyang pizzeria serves Italian dishes which can be eastern while listening to fashionable western music. Near Juche Tower the affluent and well-connected (as well as foreigners) can enjoy a great variety of beers in a pub with its own micro-brewery. The connoisseurs have assured me that the quality equals the best European microbreweries.

“The North Korean elite likes to feast on meat. In the South it is beef that is most coveted. In the North, beef is simply beyond the reach of almost everyone. Technically North Koreans are banned from eating beef because cows and oxen are used as draft animals not a source of animal protein (you don't eat your tractors, do you, the logic goes.). Like South Koreans, people in the North are big fans of the barbecue. But instead of fresh rib meats (known as kalbi in the South), North Koreans tend to prefer marinated varieties (known as pulgogi, still popular in the South, but less so). As with South Korea, North Koreans grill their meat themselves over a charcoal fire or small gas stove installed in the tables at the restaurant.”

Elite “children are fond of cheap (and seriously unhealthy) sweets imported mainly from China. Obesity is said to be an increasing problem among the elite North Korean children and teenagers. It is not incidental that Choco Pies have become tremendously popular in North Korea. They have become not only a treasured present but also a sign of success.”

Life of Elite in the 2000s

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “Kim Chol's father worked as a novelist at the steel mill in Chongjin, where he was required, under the supervision of a section of the Department of Propaganda and Agitation, to spend his days producing volume after volume of stories about the lives of factory workers. 'It was a respected job, but not well paid,' Kim said. Because a writer is considered not an artist but a labourer, the family had been rewarded with a housing allocation in the best apartment building in the city - a place reserved for elite steel workers - 'specifically built to show Kim Il Sung, to reassure him that all North Korean people were living well'. The apartment had two rooms and a small balcony, cold running water and electricity, but no heat in winter. Kim lived there with his parents and three older sisters for 20 years. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

“Normally, one had to go to Pyongyang to see apartments of such high quality. Pyongyang is North Korea's model city, full of model schools and model hospitals and model people: residence is reserved for the party's chosen, the political and military elite, the commissars and cadres and their most faithful followers, and the population is regularly cleansed of those deemed ideologically lax, as well as the old, the sick, the disfigured and the lame, who are banished to the provinces and replaced by a fresh crop of loyalists.

“It is a city of megalomaniacal architecture and public spaces: immense palaces and coliseums, grandiose boulevards, towering monuments to the Great Leader, meandering greenways, prim topiary gardens and skyscrapers (although the tallest is a shell, abandoned as structurally unusable during its construction). It is a city built to awe the rare emissaries from the outside world who are granted visas, and to glorify the Leader, who shuttles between his palaces, unseen, in a darkened car that speeds down streets cleared for his passage.”

Sanctions and Kim Jong Il Gifts to the North Korean Elite

In November 2006, The Bush administration announced it was blocking the export of luxury items to North Korea as under economic sanctions by the United Nations mandated after the North's nuclear test in October 2006. The list of blocked items included Japanese home appliances, German cars, French wine and shark fin soup, a Kim favorite. John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the ban means "a little diet for Kim Jong Il." [Source: Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, November 30, 2006]

According to the New York Times: “The U.S. list included Rolex and other high-end watches, designer clothes, iPods, plasma televisions, furs, diamonds, computers, wine and beer. It also included snowmobiles, water skis, high-powered motorcycles and racing cars - toys for elite families and for Kim himself, who the official media has portrayed as someone who loves "things that move fast." The Japanese list included beef, caviar and fatty tuna, along with expensive cars, motorcycles and cameras.”

The sanctions also hurt the North Korean elite and gifts Kim Jong Il gives them. “Gifts from Kim Jong Il are more than economic luxury in the North. "They are the greatest honor a North Korean can expect for his family," said a former trading-company official. The gifts range from watches with Kim's name inscribed and down blankets, to entire sets of Japanese audio and video equipment. All of these items, carrying logos that show they were from Kim, must be displayed prominently in the homes of recipients. "They really can change your life in the North," Choe said. "You cannot sell the gifts. If a machine is broken, you just call the party and they come quickly and fix it."

According to the Washington Post among the items blocked are Fender Stratocasters, Harleys, Ski-Doos, Marlboros, fake fur, real fur, yachts, station wagons, silk scarves, designer fountain pens, perfume, jewelry, Jet Skis, crystal, Segways, race cars, leather and plasma TVs . "While North Korea's people starve and suffer, there is simply no excuse for the regime to be splurging on Cognac and cigars," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez of the United States said. "We will ban the export of these and other luxury goods that are purchased for no other reason than to benefit North Korea's governing elite."

"Kim Jong Il personally manages a list of 200 key generals and party officials. His method of ruling is simple: rewards or punishment," Sohn Kwang Joo, a longtime North Korean observer and now chief editor of Daily NK, a Seoul-based Web site specializing in news about North Korea, told the New York Times. "For punishment, he sends them to re-education camps. For rewards, he gives them luxury gifts ordinary North Koreans cannot dream of."

North Korea's Premier Personal Shopper

Kim Jong Ryul’s job was procuring luxury items for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and their families and associates. Julia Damianova wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For 20 years, the mechanical engineer and onetime army colonel who went to college in the former East Germany purchased industrial goods, luxury Mercedes-Benz cars and weapons for the North Korean leadership. His shopping list also included such sensitive items as mass spectrometers that can be used, among other purposes, in identifying uranium and plutonium particles. Kim spoke fluent German, English and Japanese, having learned the latter, he says, from watching TV. Young, intelligent and well educated, he was the perfect person to send on lavish shopping sprees to Europe. Vienna was the ideal hub for business dealings in Germany, Switzerland and France, he says. [Source: Julia Damianova, Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2010]

“Through intermediary companies, he even bought goods from the United States, including the spectrometers, which are on the Nuclear Suppliers Group's list of restricted, dual-use equipment, and pistols that North Korean leaders ardently collected. "They all knew this was for North Korea," he says, speaking of the middlemen he worked with. But his offers were difficult to resist, he says, because he paid in cash, 30 percent over the usual asking price. At the same time, he says, he was secretly making a Western-style profit for himself. Without the knowledge of his comrades, he generally kept about 3 percent of the money from each deal, setting up a secret account in the Austrian private bank Schoellerbank, where he eventually amassed about US$300,000. In October 1994, Kim says, he fled to Austria, faking his death and going into hiding.

Malcolm Moore wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In his book, “At the Dictator's Service, “ Kim Jong Ryul “recounts the luxury in which North Korea's leaders live. Using the code name Emil, Kim travelled through Europe on a diplomatic passport and with a suitcase full of cash, procuring cars, planes, guns and special food for both Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. The goods and money would be channelled through Vienna, to take advantage of banking secrecy, lax trade rules and minimal checks on aircraft. [Source: Malcolm Moore, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2010]

“Mr Kim said the North Korean leaders had dozens of villas, some of which were built underground, that were stuffed with chandeliers, silk wallpaper and expensive furniture. He said some of the villas were equipped with special ventilation systems in case of a nuclear attack. He said Kim Il-sung would "only eat foreign food". He added: "In Vienna, there was a special attache, a friend of mine, who only procured special foreign food for the dictator." Troupes of chefs would be sent from North Korea to Austria to study how to cook.”

Wealthy North Koreans Bribe Their Way Out of Farming Labor Duties

In 2017, Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korea’s annual campaign to mobilize its population to do unpaid farm work has prompted wealthy citizens to bribe doctors to issue false medical evaluations that exempt them from the compulsory labor, sources inside the country said. Authorities of the regime of leader Kim Jong Un require that male and female citizens mobilize to provide additional farming manpower during the spring planting season and in early summer when rice is grown. In response, wealthy North Koreans have been paying bribes to doctors at hospitals to issue phony diagnoses of medical conditions that will get them out of performing hard manual labor in the fields, sources said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 2, 2017]

“An incident involving a drunken, wealthy North Korean who was returning to the capital Pyongyang by train during the mobilization period after visiting relatives in China, tipped off authorities that rich citizens might be obtaining false medical papers to skip the mass mobilization, said a source in North Hamgyong province which borders China. The authorities arrested the man, who is said to be a merchant, when he displayed violent behavior. They discovered that he had a valid travel document which usually cannot be obtained during mass mobilizations, said the source who declined to give his name. “Only rich people can get it by paying a bribe to officials,” he said.

“The man also had been diagnosed as a spinal stenosis patient in need of long-term treatment for the condition in which the spinal canal narrows causing back pain and other nerve-related problems, he said. “[Yet], he got drunk and got violent,” the source said. “[The man] is known to be exempt from the farming mobilization by bribing doctors for a fake diagnosis,” he said. The authorities who arrested the train passenger alerted the Central Committee, the leadership body of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which then ordered inspections of the People’s Hospitals, the source said.

“The People’s Hospital in the Chongam district of Chongjin, capital of North Hamgyong province and the country’s third-largest city, is being inspected by professionals from the city’s Science and Education Department, who believe that doctors have been issuing false diagnoses in return for bribes so wealthy North Koreans have a legitimate excuse to get out of the mandatory farming mobilization, he said.

“A source in North Pyongan province said that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay bribes and must provide the forced labor resent that wealthy and powerful people are getting medical exemptions. “Powerless people are suffering physically from farming, while some rich people are lounging around,” said the source who requested anonymity. The amount needed to bribe a doctor to issue a false medical diagnosis valid for a month is about 200 Chinese yuan (US$30), he said. “Very wealthy North Koreans pay more to obtain a diagnosis that is valid for several months to a few years and become ‘long-term patients,’” the source said.

“Though inspectors conduct probes of People’s Hospitals for false diagnoses every year, it has become a mere formality, the source said. If the false diagnostic statements are discovered, doctors can easily get away with it by bribing inspectors, so it is only the powerless people who are forced to participate in what is essentially slave labor during farming season.”

Other North Koreans are responding to the drive with satire. “North Korean residents are taunting the Central Committee’s propaganda about farming mobilization that requires the participation of every individual if they have the energy to hold a spoon,” said the source in North Hamgyong province. “They are ridiculing the propaganda by raising the possibility of avoiding the farming mobilization if they use chopsticks instead of spoons,” he said.

Mandatory mass mobilization campaigns, or “battles” as the regime likes to call them, are routine in North Korea, where the authorities use them to mobilize manpower for various projects and measure citizens’ loyalty to the state and Korean Workers’ Party.

Even the Elite Suffered in the 1990s North Korean Famine

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “Lee Young-suk, a former nurse, showed me pictures of herself and her husband, a retired army officer, on the day they arrived in China. They were small people to begin with, and in the photos, seated beside a roly-poly Chinese priest who had given them shelter, they looked so shrunken they might have been mistaken for a child's toys. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

“'At first, we didn't intend to come, because all our family were party members, so we were a well-off family,' Lee said. 'But after Kim Il Sung's death our financial situation got very much worse.' Her husband had no pension, there were no rations, and they had stripped their house bare, bartering all their belongings for food. 'Even though we were retired and starving, we had to work for the party. They called it social projects, working two hours for no pay at such things as early-morning indoctrination meetings and making fertiliser. But we didn't have much strength.' Her husband was furious when Lee first suggested going to China for rice. 'But our eldest son had already gone to China, and a state security agent came looking for him. We lied, but they kept coming and asking. So one day my husband said this was getting dangerous and they could send us to prison. We ran away in August 1997, crossed the Tumen River and went to a church there. They welcomed us.'

“Lee became agitated as she spoke...and she began to cry, quietly - almost, it seemed, ineptly, as if she didn't know how to cry, and disapproved of crying, and at the same time could not cry enough. 'My son who was shot to death in the military... his officer ordered him to steal pigs,' she said. 'So he got angry and said, "I came to the military for my country's unification and for killing Americans, not to become a thief." They started to fight, and the officer knocked him down and shot him dead.' She said it made her ill for days on end to think of her past, and the children and grandchildren she had lost. Then, just as abruptly, she stopped crying. 'I want to tell you about the deaths of my grandchildren,' she said. 'We used to eat grass soup with grass powder and my grandchild asked for rice. I told her we couldn't have rice because we had to starve for 10 days. Whenever I eat rice now, I feel very sad.'

Lee's hands caught each other in midair and settled for a moment in her lap. 'Before I found God, I drank a lot, and I drank a lot of alcohol in front of the graves of my children. I want to tear Kim Jong Il to death. My eldest son's wife and two of their children died of hunger. Their father had been working at a chemical-weapons factory, and they were starving. Two grandsons were starving - eight and 10 years old. They went to a noodle seller, and begged. The noodle seller gave them some noodles. They ate and fell asleep on the shop floor. Then the owner killed them with an axe to put their meat into the noodles, because pork was very expensive at the time.'

Elite in the Working-Class City of Chongjin

Joo Sung Ha grew up in Chongjin and later defected and got a job as a journalist in Seoul. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Joo was the pampered only son of a prominent official, and his family lived in Shinam, in the city's northern hills overlooking the ocean. By the standards of South Korea or China, the single-family homes with lines of fish and squid drying from the roofs are nothing special. But for North Koreans, these are mansions. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

“The Joo family had a 2,000-square-foot cement-block house and a walled garden about twice that large. The garden proved crucial in protecting the family against the famine, though they had to contend with hungry soldiers who would scale the walls and steal potatoes and cabbages.

North Korean families like to measure their status by the number of wardrobes they own, and Joo's family had five — plus a television, a refrigerator, a tape recorder, a sewing machine, an electric fan and a camera. They didn't have a phone or a car — at that time those were unthinkable even for a well-off family — but they did have a bicycle. "The appliances were of no use after the electricity ran out," Joo said. "The bicycle was the most important thing, because the buses and trams stopped running."

Joo attended the best elementary school in Chongjin, the city's foreign language institute, and eventually the country's top school, Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He never met a native English speaker in the North, or any foreigner for that matter, but he trained his ear with videotapes of the BBC and banned Hollywood films. "I sometimes watched 'Gone With the Wind' twice a day. Anybody else would have been arrested for watching Hollywood movies," he recalled.

Joo's glimpses of Western culture eroded his loyalty to the system. "I saw myself 20 years down the road in the prime of my career and North Korea would be collapsing," he said. While many of his classmates went to work for the regime's propaganda news service after graduating, Joo arranged to return to Chongjin, where he taught high school until he escaped in 2001. "The people from our neighborhood couldn't understand," said Joo, who stays in contact with his family. "They thought I had everything."

Kim Hye Young, an actress, was also a child of privilege. Her father, Kim Du Seon, was an official of a trading company that sold mushrooms and fish in China. He learned how to navigate the bureaucracy, using his connections with the army and security services. "If one of [the officials] had a wedding in the family, they would come to me for a couple of cases of wine," the older Kim said.

“As trade with China became more important, the family prospered. They took drives in a company car and ate at Chongjin's nicest restaurant. Growing up, Kim showed a flair for theater, and through her acting became a member of the elite in her own right. Her best-known role was in a play called "The Strong and the Righteous," in which she portrayed a spy who sacrifices her life for North Korea. When the production won first place in a Pyongyang drama festival in 1996, she got to meet Kim Jong Il. Still breathless with the memory, she said the leader shook her hand and gave her a fountain pen. "I knew that I, as an actress, had an important role to promote the ideology of my country," Kim said.

Kim and her sisters were largely oblivious to the famine, and their mother said she took pains to shelter them. "My daughters don't know to this day how many children in our neighborhood starved to death," said her mother, Choe Geum Lan. She also didn't tell them that their father, as a result of his business trips to China, had become increasingly pessimistic about North Korea's future.In 1998, when Kim was home from Pyongyang on vacation, her parents told her the family was going to visit an aunt in Musan, a city near the Chinese border. It was not until they had crossed to the other side that Kim and her teenage sisters, were told they had defected. Kim, now 29 and toothpaste on South Korean television, is one of the few defectors who says she didn't want to leave. "I was content with my life," she said.

Today, North Korea's elites are even better off, buying telephones for their homes and even cars. "For US$4,000 or US$5,000, anybody can buy a car now. It used to be that you weren't allowed to register your own car. We couldn't dream of it," said Kim Yong Il, a defector from Chongjin who lives in Seoul. Recently, he arranged to have a computer smuggled from China to his relatives in Chongjin. North Korea's state-run companies don't have computers, so they're eager to hire people who do. "If you have a computer, you can get a job," he said.

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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