What It's Like to Live in North Korea?

North Korea is the most secluded country in the world.[1] Sometimes referred to as the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea has been under the dictatorship of the Kim dynasty for three generations.
After the Korean War (1950 - 1953), an armistice line was created along the Korean Peninsula, dividing Korea into two nations. The two Koreas have been separated since then. Years later, the South has become one of the wealthiest nations in the world,[2] while its Northern counterpart is the poorest.[3]
Aside from the nuclear weapons program and the people's adulation for the Kims, what else do we know about the North?
There has been an influx of North Korean refugees to South Korea over the years. All of them had dangerously crossed the border in China before seeking refuge in the South. Most of their escape had been motivated by hunger. From the stories of the North Korean defectors, the outside world can finally get a glimpse of what it's like to live in North Korea.
North Korean View
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/roman-harak/6178703537/in/photostream/
Roman Harak via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
North Korea, as seen from Fangchuan, China

Electricity is Insufficient

Electricity is scarce in North Korea. It comes a few hours a day. Only the monuments of Kim Il Sung and other important buildings are lit 24/7.[8][9] In his book, Jang Jin Sung recounts that in Pyongyang, even with its two power stations, they cannot supply power to more than one district at a time.[8]
North Korea is completely dark at night, as can be seen in satellite images. Without electricity, people have to endure the harsh weather during the winter months. In the Northern part of the country, the temperature could sometimes drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.[9]
However, the power supply is good during military "drill days or DVD-player surveillance days (more on this later)" according to a North Korean who escaped in 2013.[5]
Satellite Image of North Korea
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Koreas_at_Night.jpg

North Korea is total darkness at night

South Korean Dramas are a Big Hit

Entertainment is strictly controlled by the state. The government uses films, books, songs, and newspapers for its propaganda. Even so, many North Koreans watch illegal foreign DVDs smuggled from China. South Korean soap operas are the most popular. Needless to say, the regime sees this as a threat. The government tries to curb the proliferation of these contrabands by arresting DVD sellers and people who watch them. Sometimes, the DVD sellers are executed.[12] Occasionally, the authorities would cut the power supply in one block and raid the houses to inspect what DVDs or tapes are stuck in the players.[5][10] Ironically, police watch the videos they have confiscated in raids.[9]
My Love From Another Star Scene
Credit: Youtube

a scene from the hit South Korean series My Love From Another Star

Status Depends on the Songbun System

In North Korea, your status is based on your songbun. Songbun is ranked according to your supposed loyalty to the regime. If you have a bad songbun, you will not be able to live a good life even if you work hard. If someone is accused of a crime, his entire family (including his extended family) will suffer a bad songbun. Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped in 1997, explains that it is very difficult to move to a higher rank, but it is very easy to sink to the lowest level.[13]
Kim Il Sung Mural
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victorious_Fatherland_Liberation_War_Museum,_Pyongyang,_North_Korea-1.jpg

your songbun is based on your supposed loyalty to the regime

Religions are Strictly Forbidden

In North Korea, religions are not allowed. The only deities North Koreans know of are the Kims. People referred to Kim Il Sung as the Supreme Leader and Kim Jong Il as the Dear Leader. Through years of propaganda, people are led to believe that the Kims are demigods. Most people even believe that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are perfect beings who do not need to urinate or defecate.[9][11]
Showing signs of disrespect would lead to punishment. In each home, photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are hanged on the wall. A special cloth is specifically used for cleaning the photos. Sometimes, authorities will inspect each house if the photos have been kept squeaky clean.[12] Newspapers with their faces are not allowed to be used in ways that would show disrespect (like using them as wrappers or as toilet paper).
Kim Statues
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_statues_of_Kim_Il_Sung_and_Kim_Jong_Il_on_Mansu_Hill_in_Pyongyang_(april_2012).jpg

North Koreans can only worship the Kims

Kim Portraits on Wall
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattpaish/8022751454

portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are found in every home in North Korea

The Language is Slightly Different From the South

The North and the South speak the same language, but there are some minor differences. South Korea has borrowed many English words, while the North has some Russian words.[14] In the North, the honorific suffix is reserved for referring to the Supreme Leader and the Dear Leader.[8]

The Capital Pyongyang is North Korea's Showcase City

Pyongyang is where the central government is located. Although it is not highly modernized, Pyongyang is considered the most beautiful city in the country. The elite and the people with high songbun live here. People from other places need a special permit to get into the city. It is every North Korean's dream to visit Pyongyang at least once in their lives.[9]
People living in Pyongyang are better off than those living in other cities. When Jang Jin Sung, a poet from Pyongyang, escaped to China, he could easily blend in and avoid the Chinese authorities because he did not look malnourished and his skin wasn't flaky.[8]
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pyongyang-Highrise-Buildings-2014.jpg

Pyongyang is North Korea's showcase city

Fortune-Telling is a Common Practice

It is common for North Koreans to consult a fortune teller regarding important matters.[9][13] Although it is a common practice, it is prohibited by the government. Recently, one official was accused of going to a fortune-teller. According to a recently defected woman, Kim Jong Un denounces fortune telling and superstitious beliefs, claiming that these are "toxins that damage society and human beings."[6]
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mudang_performing_a_ritual_placating_the_angry_spirits_of_the_dead.png

a Korean shaman or mudang

Marriage is Usually Arranged by Parents

Arranged marriages are very common in North Korea.[9] People know little about dating and sex.[9][11][13] Marrying someone from a lower songbun is highly discouraged since it could ruin your career prospects.[12] That said, some people are lucky to marry someone they love.[13]

Newlywed in Pyongyang
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/northkoreatravel/15715245326

a newlywed posing in front of a building in Pyongyang

North Korea has Its Own Calendar System

Three years after Kim Il Sung's death, a new calendar system, called Juche, was created. Kim Il Sung's birthday, April 15, 1912, is now the first year of the new calendar. 2016 is year 105 in North Korea.[8]

There is no Freedom of Movement

North Koreans are not free to travel between cities.[8][9] Before purchasing a train ticket, they need to present a travel pass,[8][13] which has to be approved by the Ministry of State Security. Travellers without travel passes are sent to labor camps. That said, many people without travel passes can still travel illegally through bribery.[8]

Pyongyang Metro
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:People_in_Pyongyang_Metro_02.JPG

people in Pyongyang Metro

North Korean Prisoners are Treated as Subhuman

North Korea is notorious for its prison camps. Chol Hwan Kang and Shin Dong Hyuk gave detailed accounts of their experiences in prison camps. Prison guards have the complete power to brutally abuse inmates. Prisoners are forced to do hard labor and are tortured by starvation, beatings, and sometimes rape. Although the regime has repeatedly denied it, former prisoners' testimonies reveal about the grueling torture they had endured in these camps. Not only criminals are brought into these camps. Chol Hwan Kang, together with his family, was arrested when he was only nine. Their crime was guilt by association, which means they are relatives of an alleged criminal. They were taken to Yodok labor camp where they spent 10 years as prisoners.[12] Shin Dong Hyuk, another defector, was born in Camp 14 to two political prisoners. Camp 14 is a total control zone and is believed to have the most brutal working conditions of all the prison camps. Political prisoners, or the "irredeemables", are sent there. Shin witnessed his mother and his brother's execution and suffered severe torture. He was 23 when he escaped in 2005.[11][16]
It's not uncommon to have your neighbors mysteriously disappear and never be seen again.[13] People are aware of these camps even if no one talks about it out loud. According to North Korean refugees, an estimated 150,000–200,000 are being held as prisoners in different prison camps.[15]

Warning: The following video shows graphic images drawn by 81 defectors depicting their life in prison camps. Viewer discretion is advised.

Rice is a Luxury

Rice is a staple food in many parts of the world, especially in Asia. In North Korea, many people consider rice as a luxury.[12] Rice is sacred and for many years, it is illegal to sell rice.[13] A doctor who escaped to China in 1999 recounts how she found a bowl of rice and meat in a farmhouse. The food was for the dogs. She realized the harsh reality that even "dogs ate better than doctors in North Korea."[12]
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/george_reyes/391843903

Small Heads and Petite Figures are not Beautiful

In South Korea, having a small head is perceived as beautiful. In North Korea, they see no connection between beauty and the size of one's head. People with small heads are often teased for having no brains. Likewise, they prefer a chubby figure over a slim one. Describing a North Korean as being petite or having a small head may be taken as an insult. However, their perception of beauty may change because of the rising popularity of South Korean series in the North.[19]

Final Words

The number of defectors had been increasing over the years, with the highest number reaching 2,914 in 2009. As of 2015, there is a total of 28,795 North Koreans who have resettled in South Korea.[17] When Kim Jong Un took office, he believed that large-scale defection is harmful to the regime. He beefed up the border security. Labor migration is now legal, and overseas travel is more lenient. Unlike in Kim Jong Il's era, the economy has now been improved. People are still poor and malnourished, but they can already afford food. Since 2012, the number of asylum seekers has dropped significantly.[4] That said, political defections have increased in recent years.[18]
On another note, the younger generation is less susceptible to brainwashing than their parents. They wear jeans, dye their hair, watch foreign movies, and listen to love songs even if they're illegal.[9] Perhaps by having more exposure to the outside world, they are somewhat aware that the Kims are not all that perfect.
© Rainy Kua 2016