What It Is REALLY Like Living In North Korea? – What would your life be like if you were born in North Korea? It’s kind of hard for those of us on the outside to imagine. The country’s official media present a bizarre picture of impossibly loyal, leader-adoring ranks of civilians and military alike. To some extent, western media replay those images without enough skepticism for the stagy propaganda.
For viewers outside the control of that secretive state, however, the glimpses convey the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of happy, socialist cadres, the people depicted come across as an undifferentiated, freakish mass. And, rather than focusing on human-interest features, Western news stories tend to show a rocket blasting off, perhaps followed by a map graphic showing the missile’s potential radius.
None of that has much to do with daily life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,as the isolated country is officially known. Even though the military and the Workers’ Party of Korea remain central institutions, the focus of daily life for most North Koreans has nothing to do with politics or war.
The government was once literally revered in the figures of Kim Jung-il, and especially the nation’s founding father, Kim Il-sung. Now the state is something of an economic means to an end at best, and more often, an unavoidable annoyance–not to mention a continuing object of fear. For a generation now, most North Koreans have lived experiences that demonstrate the patent lies of the state media.
They just have to be careful who they admit it to. There was a time when everyone in the North Korea made their living working for the government,and many were happy to do it. In the 1950s, the DPRK’s economy was actually stronger than that of their rival, U.S.-allied South Korea. During the days of Japanese colonization, the northern part of the peninsula was modernized for heavy industry.
The south, with more favorable agricultural conditions, started off their independent era with less industrial infrastructure. In the 1960s and 1970s, North Koreans continued along in economic security as their neighbors in China struggled to emerge from years of deadly famine. By the 1980s, the equipment, factories, railways, and power grid that North Korea depended upon was aging.
As was the case in many Communist countries of the era, pretty much everyone was poor,but few were genuinely destitute. And then the bottom fell out. The prevailing philosophy during the long reign of Kim Il-sung was Juche, or self-reliance. It was a matter of pride that North Koreans were in control of their own economic destiny, growing and manufacturing most of what they needed domestically.
Without a doubt, the people of North Korea were incredibly industrious. But what the country’s leader didn’t mention was the incredible amount of support that poured into the country from China and the Soviet Union. Trading goods at a loss amounted to an indirect subsidy from the neighboring giants. Most crucially, North Korea’s fuel supply depended upon assistance from the USSR.
And when, quite suddenly, there was no USSR anymore, North Korea was in trouble. The loss of foreign trade and the fuel shortage in the early 1990s started a literal death spiral for the people of North Korea. Factory production slowed. Without sufficient fertilizers or machinery, farm production slumped.
There was now simply less food to go around. In those days, wages were supplemented with direct food distribution by the state. That stopped. Raw materials stopped reaching factories, and workers, left with nothing to do, were now also receiving virtually no compensation. Production of everything basically halted.
And people began to starve. Many of the experiences of ordinary North Koreans in this time of destitution, and during the era of radical economic change that follow are taken from North Korea Confidential, by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, who show ways that the closed society has found some openings;and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which chronicles the lives of people in North Korea’s far northeastern industrial region.
Demick’s stories, in turn, come in large part from defectors who lived through the misery. What little residual momentum was left in North Korea’s state-run economy effectively died when poor growing conditions in the mid-1990s caused massive crop failures. Now even the last vestiges of public food distribution ended. Hospitals filled with the sick and starving, and then they emptied.
Those who were growing their own small gardens–the only form of private production allowed–had a little bit of a buffer. But that was no help to city dwellers. Stories of people eating tree bark and grass in those days are no exaggeration. Those who could do so hunted wild animals, until they became a rarity.
People scraped food out of bilge and animal dung. Exaggerated rumors raised the spectre of cannibalism among the country’s already suffering public. Foreign aid came in, but the regime refused to allow aid groups to distribute it themselves. Incompetence may have played some role in the poor allocation. But part of the problem was certainly a callous undervaluation of the lives of some citizens.
The policy under Kim Jong-il was Songun, or “Military First. “Those who were considered important to the state and its defense might live; others were on their own. A low estimate for the number of deaths in the North Korean famine of the 1990s is 240,000,but it may have been as high as 600,000. The higher figure would represent a staggering 10 percent of the population.
In a reference to a well-known story of Kim Il-sung’s alleged victory over the Japanese in World War II, era of economic depression in the 1990s became known as The Arduous March. It was in those days of misery, among the ruins of the command economy, that an unusual form of capitalism sprouted up.
As a corollary to the acceptance of kitchen gardens, beginning in the 1980s, the regime reluctantly granted people the right to trade produce at outdoor neighborhood markets known as jangmadang. At the height of the famine, for many, an informal jangmadang in one’s village or neighborhood might be the only place to obtain food.
People developed a system of bartering. It was illegal to sell newly manufactured products in an informal market, but people would bring in second-hand goods, and people with different skill sets would offer an increasing range of services like bicycle repair and hairstyling. Somehow, bags of rice from aid shipments found their way into the market stalls, and people were glad to buy this most valued commodity when they could, despite the specific ban on selling rice.
In fact, as the jangmadang expansion was going on in the late 1990s, aside from the original garden vegetables, the whole thing was illegal. But there was nothing the government could do about it, since there was no alternative that could put food on people’s tables. Beginning sometime around 2002, the DPRK leadership made legal recognition of the markets official policy.
Vendors could receive approval to operate their concerns in exchange for a fee. For large sellers, the licensure was worth the cost, and they no longer needed to fear arrest or seizure of their merchandise. The receipts also provided the dead-broke state with a source of revenue. By the mid-2010s, the largest of the markets had become veritable superstores, with stalls spread over many acres, and products and services ranging from electronics, household appliances, motorcycles, car batteries, pharmaceuticals, and eventually even livestock.
From the start, most of the vendors were middle-aged and older women, for a variety of reasons. Men have always made up the large majority of North Korea’s military, which is huge. As a side-note, it’s among the world’s largest fighting forces. Only China, the U.S., India, and possibly Russia, have more soldiers and sailors, and all three have vastly larger populations and economies.
De facto male conscription applies to the large majority of men, whereas only one-tent has many women are recruited. In the 1990s, the standard term of military service grew to ten years, and with grim job prospects elsewhere, joining and staying in the army was for many young men the best deal on offer.
Culturally, buying and selling goods was viewed as an undesirable job, and in the 1980s and 90s, women continued to have lower social status than men in North Korea. Additionally, food insecurity tends to kill adult men faster than adult women, based on natural body fat percentages. And in 2015, Kim Jong-un removed age restrictions on women marketers, while banning men under 60 from operating stalls.
One result of markets run largely by women is a general rise in opportunity, and a greater economic centrality for women in the income of families. Most people in the civilian sector still had day jobs, and those were still with the government. But by the early 2000s, most jobs paid far less than one needed to survive.
This fact led to a second major economic restructuring. The reality was that you would likely have to make your living doing something other than your official job. Depending upon where you lived, and your social standing, that could take various forms. By now, the state was effectively mandating that people grow their own food.
Even soldiers spent a good deal of their time farming. If you were already working on a collective farm, you might sneak off to some marginal land to grow your own crops on the side. At first, this practice was likewise illegal, but utterly rational if you were looking at starvation as the alternative.
In time, the government eased up on this issue, too, allowing farm workers to cultivate some land for their own families as long as they also hit their public quota. On a larger scale, people in positions of power began to start quasi-private companies. At a time when productivity couldn’t be lower, managers were given permission to get creative in making money.
International trade, particularly with China, became an important source of revenue for several government departments. Although the use of foreign currency was, as with so many other aspects of this new economy, illegal, in reality, everyone knew that you needed Japanese yen, U. S. dollars,and Chinese yuan to effectively keep operations moving.
Around 2009, the DPRK made one last serious attempt to curtail privatization of the economy. The North Korean government effectively devalued their currency–which, like South Korea’s,is called the won, although they’re completely separate. The act of re-denominating North Korea’s currency wiped out the savings of many of the newly-minted black market success stories, and was incredibly unpopular among this increasingly prominent class.
The government back pedal led, and ended its last serious crackdown on the informal economy. The official in charge of that monetary scheme was executed. It’s an open secret that an official caste system determines much of your lot in life in the DPRK. Everyone is classified into one of three major strata, called songbun.
Basically, people are considered either loyal, indifferent, or hostile to the regime. That sounds straightforward enough, but it gets worse. Songbun is inherited. If your parents had low status, you do too. Nobody tells you, but you figure it out. For example, you might ace an entrance exam to a university, but get shut out.
If you’re a young woman, a guy you like might avoid you for fear of losing status. Because, although you can’t get yourself into a higher songbun, if the government finds out you’re doing something questionable, you can get knocked into a lower level. At the highest social strata, you’re exempted from military service, and more or less guaranteed a high status job.
On the other hand, people at the very lowest status aren’t trusted with much of anything,and can’t even qualify for military service. The majority of males do have to enlist, with evaluations starting around age 14, and training for those accepted beginning at 17. There are minimum height and weight requirements, too, but in the wake of an era of wide spread malnutrition, those rules have necessarily been loosened.
Going to university lets you defer enlistment, and depending upon the job you get out of college, you might be able to avoid the draft altogether. But, again, university acceptance is partly based on your social class, and even more so, the course of study you might enter. Party membership is likewise a function of your songbun, and so in another irony, there aren’t any members of the working class in the Korean Workers’ Party.
In principle, this has something to do with the supposed class standing of your ancestors in the pre-independence era, but those alleged justifications have no relationship at all to the power structure of the last three generations. High status jobs as scientists, doctors, university professors, government officials, and the like, require high songbun.
On the other hand, in the world of the informal economy, class standing has much less importance. True, to manage one of the new major corporate enterprises, you have to start off in a position of wealth or power. But to succeed at the level of the jangmadang, you pretty much just have to hustle–and, probably, pay some bribes. A natural offshoot of marketing homegrown produce is selling your home-cooked food.
To the extent that ingredients were available, preparing food for sale at a jangmadang wasa logical cottage industry, as was the bulk processing of raw ingredients like flour to fill the niche left by the shuttered state apparatus. At-home manufacturing of everyday products like shoes met other desperate needs for one’s neighbors.
And increasingly, once-unavailable imported foods like oranges and pineapples started showing up at the markets. The famine was ending for two reasons, one grim, and the other hopeful. First, after so many deaths, there were just fewer mouths to feed. But now, there was also a functioning system in place to procure and distribute food.
Although it involved risk, there wasn’t much left to lose. One of the key elements of the informal economy is smuggling. The border with South Korea is ridiculously well guarded, so that’s a nonstarter. But the Chinese border to the north is pretty porous, if you know how and where to cross. In the modern system, border guards effectively count on bribes from smugglers as a major part of their salary.
All manner of product pours in: foreign fashions are quite popular, as are South Korean films and TV shows. As memory sticks replace DVDs as the medium of choice for banned content, censors are increasingly unable to stem the flow. Even soldiers in North Korea enjoy watching South Korean movies, albeit discreetly.
Young women in the northern region have taken to wearing black jeans, which are less obvious than blue jeans, if technically still illegal. South Korean brands are more highly valued than Chinese, in another upending of the traditional party line. Millions of North Koreans own cell phones on the country’s internal network.
But if you live near the border and want to talk to people outside the country, you can buy an illegal Chinese phone and pick up their signal from across the river. Increasingly, people are finding ways to communicate outside the eyes of the censors. The state puts limits on domestic travel, and you’re supposed to get permission before going on a trip.
That’s become less of an obstacle now that there are so many private bus and truck operators. Since trains are unreliable almost to the point of being nonexistent in much of the country, the new buses are about the only option, anyway. A second, and even more important function of these vehicles is the transportation of goods, licit or otherwise, around the country for distribution in the thriving markets.
As with much of the economy, this system depends upon greased palms. Bribes have become so much a part of daily life, that they’ve effectively become more of a system of taxation than any real threat of punishment for low-level economic crimes. Lower officials, in turn, have to hand some of their take up the ladder.
At the bottom of the system, small vendors who operate at the margins of the official markets, or in unofficial rural sites, sometimes don’t even bother to bribe anyone. When Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, he revised his father’s military-first position to a new dual focus: basically, nuclear weapons and the economy.
These were at odds, since the sanctions from the international community in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program were a drain on civilian sector development. But the new Kim also took a much more tolerant stance toward the unofficial privatization. By now, entire government agencies were themselves profiting from capitalist enterprises, and the fact that this was in large part black market activity somewhat insulated them from international censure.
There was never an official declaration, but cues from prominent officials displaying rich clothes and cars were a tacit invitation to increasing boldness from the nouveau riche. Pyongyang had a way to go, but the DPRK leadership clearly wanted it to compete with the luster of Seoul. Massive building projects in the capital became a priority.
Lately, Kim Jong-un has made the development of resorts in the mountains and by the sea the focus of a huge push, since tourism is a sector less affected by international sanctions. If all this is starting to sound like the bad times may be ending, that’s not quite the case, at least so far. The labor for the ambitious construction projects is effectively slavery.
One of the major functions of the military is to serve as free construction labor. The hours are long and the work is brutally hard, and sometimes unsafe. Food is meager, although it seems to be better than what soldiers on other bases are given to eat, which is nothing. Officers receive meals, although their families do not.
Common soldiers are expected to grow their own food, or, failing that, to forage. This creates bad relations with people in neighboring towns, since the resulting practice is for soldiers to steal from civilian homes. Recently, soldiers have crossed the border to go on looting trips to nearby villages in China.
In one extreme case, a soldier who was seriously ill fled on foot across the demilitarized zone to South Korea, taking multiple gunshots in the process. Women in the North Korean military have faced institutionalized rape and sexual abuse from higher ranking officers and political advisors. An officially announced crackdown has yet to end this ugly variation on the culture of kickbacks and extortion.
The harsh conditions faced by rank and file military are another inversion from the past,when that sector was the most valued part of the state. One exception to the trend is the group called Bureau 121, an elite group of hackers in the military, chosen young for special computer training and tasked with cyber warfare.
This capability is considered especially important, and so its soldiers are well-compensated. Being a civilian doesn’t necessarily exempt you from forced labor. To support the rapid building campaigns, military-style “shock troops” of ordinary citizens are also pressed into service through levels of coercion.
Regular industries have a chain of command akin to military structure, with employees belonging to fixed work groups. The units serve various purposes: disseminating official information, enforcing ideological conformity , and of course meeting production quotas. The work group bosses therefore can pretty much order people to join the ad hoc construction crews, regardless of whether the group is ostensibly doing construction elsewhere, operating machinery in a factory, or any other work.
If you can afford a bribe, you can avoid heading out to the months-long construction project. To fill the shortfall created by those who can dodge conscription into a work gang, managers are reportedly going to extreme measures, including child labor. Food insecurity has begun looming again as a possible catastrophe.
The government’s agricultural department is more aware now of what should be done to prevent it–namely, better crop yields through fertilizer and farm equipment. But that doesn’t change the fact that the needed infrastructure is still lacking. Lots of people still plow their fields walking behind an ox.
Meagre resources by definition prevent a stockpile of grain for an emergency, so the nation stumbles on, hand-to-mouth, year by year. General supply shortages have lately been hurting business in the neighborhood markets. Many people aren’t waiting around to see how it turns out this time. A steady stream of defectors make their way out of North Korea every year.
To do so requires not only the emotional investment of leaving your home, but a substantial pile of cash, as well. So the people who are in the best position to leave are not the desperately poor, but those who have managed to save some earnings from opportunities in the informal economy. The kind of human smuggling assistance you get varies, depending upon your budget.
A basic fee gets you across the border, and from there you have to find your way to Mongolia or Vietnam, and from there back around to South Korea. High-end smugglers will plan a complete itinerary for you, with the necessary connections and bribes along the way to allow for a much shorter trip. South Korea welcomes all defectors from the north, and there are programs that help you get started in your new life.
It won’t be totally unknown, since you’ve been watching South Korean TV for years, and receiving quiet intel from trusted associates back home. And then the cycle can perpetuate itself. There’s of course no official way to send money from south of the DMZ, but a substitute banking system allows defectors to send quite a bit of money back to North Korea, relative to the small size of the economy.
Chinese nationals living in the DPRK are often helpful in this regard. While North Korean citizens near the northern border have to be somewhat discreet when using a Chinese cell phone, Chinese citizens can use the foreign phones openly. They’ll get a call from a colleague in South Korea, transfer the amount paid by the sender,less a transaction fee, into their own account, and hand cash to the recipient.
A similar system aids phone calls between the countries, reinforcing the growing information flow from person to person about the outside world. But despite the cracks in the information wall, the totalitarian regime of the DPRK remains firmly in power, with no sign of going anywhere. Political dissent is still entirely forbidden, and severely punished.
As high-ranking officials grow rich off of bribes, and the tier below them enter an upper middle class, their best bet is with the status quo. After all, it’s the tacit government tolerance of the unofficial economic system that’s gotten them where they are, both in terms of social rank and business opportunities. Backlashes against individuals are always a possibility.
Despite a trend toward freer dress codes, a prominent Pyongyang resident who crosses the invisible line into something too showy may face reprisal. And for more serious perceived political offenses, sentences of hard labor, prison, and execution remain common. So for now, North Koreans live out an inherent contradiction: they have to obey the law, and voice support for a broken economic system, but they can only survive by working outside of it.
What do you think it would take to survive in a military dictatorship–or to escape from one? Let us know what you think in the comments.