A Normal Day in Pyongyang
North Korea’s capital remains one of the least known places on earth. For more than half a century the government of the DPRK has carefully managed the availability of images and reporting from Pyongyang, meaning that for people outside North Korea the city remains largely unknown. Those images of Pyongyang that do emerge are carefully stage-managed and usually reflect only highly organised processions or parades during ceremonial events. Rarely if ever is the life of the ordinary residents shown. Similarly, within the country Pyongyang is shown by state media as the capital of the revolution; hence many North Koreans have little idea either of the reality of daily existence in the capital.
This lack of familiarity with Pyongyang has gone a long way towards hiding the nature of daily life in the capital. Life in Pyongyang is highly politicised and regimented; yet increasingly, as the economy has collapsed and food shortages have continued, attention has been fixed on daily survival, coping with shortages and maintaining something approximating a normal life.
Pyongyang: capital of our revolution
The day starts early in Pyongyang, the city described by the government as the ‘capital of revolution’. North Koreans emerge from bed at around 6.00 a.m., dress and head off to work, where many arrive by 7.30. Most Pyongyang residents (the city’s name means ‘level ground’) live in high-rise buildings, hastily erected over the sixty years since the end of the Korean War. The blocks are lined up along the city’s wide boulevards and house most of Pyongyang’s 2.5 million-plus population. The apartment blocks, which were erected fast to house a massive homeless population devastated by war, and the noticeably few office blocks are now showing signs of their age. They were mostly built in the 1960s when Pyongyang was rebuilding after being almost completely flattened by American bombing during the war. There are still a few narrow single-lane and some two-lane roads, though most streets are boulevards of uniformly utilitarian high-rise blocks – what the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung liked to think were the hallmark of a city of the future. The war-induced necessity of rapidly rebuilding Pyongyang, and the political policy of resettling many rural people in cities and towns, have given North Korea a relatively high population density of approximately 185,000 people per square kilometre – similar to Italy or Switzerland.
Those who live on higher floors may have to set out for work or school a little earlier than those lower down. Due to the chronic power shortages affecting the entire DPRK, many apartment-building elevators have long stopped operating, or work only intermittently. As many buildings are between twenty and forty storeys tall, this is an inconvenience. In general the major problem is for the older residents, who find the stairs difficult. Many senior citizens are effectively trapped in their apartments; there are stories of old people who, having moved in, have never been able to leave. Even in the better blocks elevators can be sporadic and so people just don’t take the chance. Families make great efforts to relocate their older relatives on lower floors or in houses, but this is difficult and a bribe is sometimes required.1 With food shortages now constant, many older people share their meagre rations with their grandchildren, weakening themselves further and making the prospect of climbing stairs even more daunting.
Keeping warm is also problematic. Apartment buildings are largely heated by hot water, houses by charcoal briquettes. However, if the electricity supply is suspended – a not uncommon event given the ongoing fuel crisis – then no heat is available. Most residents stay in their winter clothes all day, even sleeping in them. People who manage to obtain chicken or duck feathers use them to make warm quilts to see them through the icy winters.
Every day people liaise with their neighbours on the current electricity situation. At times a large proportion of Pyongyang operates an ‘alternative suspension of electricity supply’ system, meaning that when buildings on one side of the street are blacked out the other side of the street gets power. Neighbours monitor the situation, often sending children or older relatives to watch television in a friend’s apartment across the road. When the power supply alternation time arrives there is a mad rush of children as they head for their friends’ apartments across the road. Even ‘prioritised’2 buildings can suffer these interruptions of supply; this was not uncommon in the late 1990s, and occasionally happens today.
Apartments cut off use candles or carbide and kerosene lights, though many families are too poor to afford these alternative power sources, which are anyway in short supply and relatively expensive. Those with access to foreign currency and connections might have a tank battery to supply electricity, and thereby avoid the worst of the power cuts, but they will have to spend tens of thousands of DPRK won (NKW) to get one. Some apartments and houses have no problem with regular power cuts, such as those of the more senior party cadres (defined as above primary party secretary level), leadership guards and senior army personnel. On the other hand, the power never gets cut to, for example, the Mansudae Statue, to the Juche Tower on the banks of the Taedong river, which flows through central Pyongyang, or to the numerous neon propaganda signs on top of buildings. If nothing else, Pyongyang residents can console themselves with the fact that the situation outside the capital is invariably much worse.
A roof over your head
Worrying about the electricity supply means you have a house or apartment, though privacy is not always guaranteed. It is common for two households to have to share in Pyongyang. For a small family in a house with three rooms, it is not unusual for another householder of the same age to be moved in. While people don’t like surrendering valuable living space, it is often dictated by the work unit. House and apartment shortages are serious throughout North Korea and in Pyongyang in particular. According to the Korea Institute for National Reunification’s White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, the supply of housing in the DPRK is around 56–63 per cent of demand. All housing is apportioned by the state, and quality and location are dependent on social rank – the DPRK’s social ranking system of fifty-one political classifications assigns everyone a place in the national hierarchy. With a growing population, the overcrowding is not about to improve.
In Pyongyang, it can take two or three years for a newlywed couple to be allocated a one-room apartment attached to a communal kitchen. Many newly married couples continue to live with one set of parents for as long as a decade. The quickest way to escape this situation is to have a contact in the housing allocation section, under the jurisdiction of the People’s Committee Urban Management Bureau, which handles housing allocations. For Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) cadres, the party headquarters assigns housing. The very senior benefit from the few luxury compounds.
So long as a person is employed by the same work unit their allocated dwelling is usually theirs until they die. They invariably live close to co-workers, thereby increasing the self-monitoring of society. If reassigned to a different work unit, they may have to move. However, people do not expect anything much bigger or better, as virtually all Pyongyang apartment buildings are the same size and quality. Outside the city you might get a so-called ‘harmonica’ house, Korean-style row houses invariably consisting of three or four single-storey buildings of one room and one kitchen each. These are mostly suited for newlyweds or families with just one child. They have the additional luxury of a small garden, which means the couple can grow vegetables to supplement their diet. Senior cadres, military officials, favoured academics and enterprise managers can get more – typically two rooms, a veranda, shower, flush toilet and hot running water. Rural workers on collective farms can typically expect two rooms and a shared kitchen in a smaller apartment building or possibly a more traditional two- or three-room Korean-style farmhouse.
In both the capital and the provinces, complaints about noise from the neighbours are common as apartment walls are thin. Buildings are invariably freezing cold in the winter and very hot in the summer, as central heating and air conditioning are rare. People have been known to weep on the day they move into a new apartment and immediately start decorating with wallpaper and oiled paper for the floors. (A house-warming party is obligatory and guests all take small gifts.)
As the housing shortage worsened, so many people started to bypass the official route. Clandestine house transactions have been reported in Pyongyang since the mid-1980s. One famous story concerns Pyongyang’s Kwangbok (Liberation) Street, which was built for ordinary workers with 25,000 family units, though deemed to be of superior quality compared to Pyongyang’s regular housing stock. Apparently a group of wealthier North Koreans who used to live in Japan and some senior KWP cadres bribed the urban management officials with foreign currency and electronic appliances and obtained the apartments for themselves. This story got around Pyongyang and caused some disquiet, leading to a government crackdown on illegal transactions. However, others have found ways around the system. People who have left the DPRK report that a one-room apartment in Pyongyang can be ‘bought’ for US$400 and a three-room one for US$1,500, though prices are now reportedly skyrocketing. Plans to build 100,000 new homes in Pyongyang as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in 2012 reportedly came to naught and were cancelled by Kim Jong-un due to a lack of raw materials, inadequate electricity supply and the poor quality of the initial construction. Housing shortages persist.
As an unofficial housing market emerged in Pyongyang, in the countryside in the late 1990s many families sold their homes to raise money either to start some sort of bartering business, buy black-market goods or escape to China. At this time houses were reportedly trading for as little as US$15. For those who need currency to buy housing, an informal foreign currency loan will require the payment of 20 to 30 per cent in annual interest – perhaps even as high as 50 per cent per month. With the food shortages worsening, cases have been reported of families becoming homeless in the provinces after swapping their accommodation rights for food.
Badges, bicycles and fashions
In Pyongyang a growing number of women work in whitecollar office jobs; they make up an estimated 90 per cent of workers in light industry and 80 per cent of the rural workforce. Many women are now the major wage-earner in the family – though still housewife, mother and cook as well as a worker, or perhaps a soldier. Make-up is now increasingly common in Pyongyang, though is rarely worn until after college graduation. Skin lotion is popular but still sometimes frowned upon by the local Socialist Youth League. Local brands have appeared from the Pyongyang and the Sinuiju cosmetics factories. Products include ginseng liquid cream, though rumour has it that it contains no actual ginseng (ginseng toothpaste is also ginseng-free). Chinese-made skin lotions, foundation, eyeliner and lipstick are available and permissible in the office. Many women now suffer from blotchy skin as the national diet has deteriorated, and in consequence are wearing more make-up. Long hair is common but untied hair is frowned upon.
Men’s hairstyles could not be described as radical. In the 1980s, when Kim Jong-il first came to public prominence, his trademark crewcut, known as a ‘speed battle cut’, became popular, while the more bouffant style favoured by Kim Ilsung, and then Kim Jong-il, in their later years, is also popular, though Kim Jong-un’s trademark short-back-and-sides does not appear to have inspired much imitation so far. Hairdressers and barbers are run by the local ‘Convenience Services Management Committee’; at many, customers can wash their hair themselves. In 2012 many districts of Pyongyang were without running water for two months due to electricity shortages. Economic pressures have seen many hairdressers close down, as more people cut their hair at home to save money. Women often buy Chinese-made permanent wave and hair-dye kits at farmers’ markets and perm each other’s hair.
Pyongyang is the fashion capital of North Korea, offering greater access to foreign, often Japanese-inspired, styles. This was how bell-bottoms became fashionable; and how wearing Japanese sunglasses became a sign of being connected and in style. A Japanese watch denotes someone in an influential position, a foreign luxury watch indicates a very senior position. The increasing appearance of Adidas, Disney and other brands, usually fake, indicates that access to smuggled goods from China is growing. Most branded clothing is smuggled in and sold for cash. Jeans have at times been fashionable though risky – occasionally they have been banned as ‘decadent’, along with long hair on men, which at times has led to arrest and a forced haircut. Fashion as such is not really an applicable term in North Korea, as the Apparel Research Centre under the Clothing Industry Department of the National Light Industry Committee designs most clothing. However, things have loosened up somewhat, with bright colours now permitted as being in accordance with a ‘socialist lifestyle’.
Clothing – including socks and underwear – remains in short supply, while winter clothing is now increasingly provided by the aid agencies. Socks have been a perennial problem, with foot wrappings often substituted to save socks for best occasions. One unique contribution to fashion is the still commonly seen Vinalon – a synthetic textile manufactured from limestone exclusively in North Korea – which, though hard to dye and with a tendency to shrinkage after washing, is made into the North Korean version of the utilitarian Mao-style grey suit worn by many men (though the new uniform of white shirt and black tie is becoming increasingly popular). Despite the efforts of the Textile Industry Management Bureau, Vinalon has never been an export success; neither has the North’s other textile development, Tetron. In highly stratified North Korea, clothes represent status. Possession of an overcoat or leather shoes, for example, indicates rank.
One daily ritual of all North Koreans is making sure they have their Kim Il-sung badge attached to their lapel – one of the few social delineators in the DPRK. The ubiquitous badges both denote social status and are a fashion item. Schoolchildren and teenagers use the badges to perk up their school uniforms. Increasingly Kim Il-sung badges were partly replaced by Kim Jong-il badges and now Kim Jong-un badges have appeared, though are still rare. Kim Il-sung badges have been in circulation since the late 1960s when the Mansudae Art Studio started producing them for party cadres. They slowly became a status symbol indicating rank, as well as testifying to the growing personality cult around Kim. Now the badges are worn universally, and desirable ones can change hands on the black market for several hundred NKW. In a city where people rarely carry a significant amount of cash and don’t wear jewellery, and where credit cards are unheard of, Kim badges are one of the most prized targets of Pyongyang’s pickpockets.
What badge you wear depends on who you are. Fashions and campaigns change but, for instance, students at Kim Il-sung University wear Kim Il-sung badges; non-party, non-student young people traditionally wear youth vanguard badges; while the general public usually sport general badges. Kim Jong-il and combination badges portraying both the Dear Leader and the Great Leader are also increasingly seen. As they are new and in short supply, Kim Jong-un badges are thought to be reserved for only the most senior cadres at present. Badges are supplied free of charge, but losing one can be a problem as people have to explain what happened to it and prove they had no politically malicious intent before being given another.
Breakfast usually involves corn or maize porridge, possibly a boiled egg and sour yoghurt, with perhaps powdered milk for children. After breakfast it is time for work. North Korea has a large working population: approximately 59 per cent of the total in 2010. Many workers travel by bicycle, though these are prized possessions; most walk. Despite being a cheap form of transport, bicycles are not an overwhelming presence on the streets as they are in Chinese cities. In the 1990s only about 50 per cent of households had bicycles and demand was high. Now, thanks to relatively cheaper Chinese imports and persistent fuel shortages, around 70 per cent of households own a bicycle. For cycle-less Pyongyang residents the alternative is the cheap, though overcrowded, public transport system. However, trolley buses and subway train services suffer from power shortages. For those outside the capital the major alternative is walking.
Those who have a bicycle usually own a ‘Sea Gull’ unless they are privileged and own an imported second-hand Japanese bicycle. Even a Sea Gull costs several months’ wages and requires saving. Cheaper brands are available, such as the Songchonggang. Very recently more Japanese-made bicycles have been spotted. Pyongyang residents do have standards, and anyone arriving on a gleaming Sea Gull to pick up their girlfriend on a date will be considered a relatively good prospect. The other way round doesn’t work: women riding bicycles are still often looked down upon. In 1999 DPRK TV denounced ‘bicycle-riding women in trousers’ as a practice running counter to good morals and manners. However, it appears that in recent years the regime has relaxed rules for women cyclists and they are now more common.
Pyongyang’s street scene remains constant, though the remaining fruit trees blossom in the short-lived spring to add some colour. While street hoardings and advertising are nonexistent, propaganda posters are common, as are loudspeaker systems along major streets and within housing complexes, as well as roving trucks with loudspeakers broadcasting political news, slogans and music. Fads in slogans come and go – ‘Long Live the Revolutionary Sovereignty of Labourers and Farmers Led by Kim Jong-il’ and ‘Everybody Must Take Part in Consolidating Revolutionary Sovereignty’ are two traditional slogans that have endured. ‘Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun of North Korea’ is more recent obviously and indicates the regime’s intention to continue the personality cult into the era of Kim3. In the current political climate slogans praising the military and denouncing the US remain in vogue. On an election day there is more activity, with youth-guard singing teams and brass bands, as well as performances of a ‘socialist dance’ which resembles a polka. On election day voting is compulsory; hence the near 100 per cent voting and approval rates. Kim Jong-il’s re-election with 100 per cent support in September 2003 reportedly saw scenes of dancing housewives and loyal soldiers ‘wildly clapping their hands and shouting hurrays’ while ‘women in colorful dress and children wearing red scarves sang songs and danced on streets decorated with flags and flowers’. In fact there were some absences, but the authorities put this down to people being overseas, sick or out fishing.
Looking for the rush hour
Pyongyang has traffic and some people do drive to work, but congestion is hardly a major problem. Despite the relative lack of cars, police enforce traffic regulations strictly and issue tickets. Fines can be equivalent to two weeks’ salary. Most cars belong to state organisations, though are often used as if they were privately owned. All vehicles entering Pyongyang must be clean; owners of dirty cars may be fined. Trucks are banned from the city centre during the day; night passes are required between the hours of 22.00 and 05.00. Those travelling out of Pyongyang require a travel certificate. There are few driving regulations; however, on hills ascending vehicles have the right of way, and trucks cannot pass passenger cars under any circumstances. Drunk driving is punished with hard labour. A striking peculiarity for some years was that North Korea was unique in having four-colour traffic lights (the fourth for turning right). However, most traffic control is now performed by female traffic directors (reportedly originally hand-picked by Kim Jong-il for their beauty), as the lights are switched off to save electricity. The odd oxcart can still be seen trundling around Pyongyang’s suburbs.
Cars in the North are estimated to number only around 300,000 (compared to over 19 million cars in the South). Most are under the control of the party, executive committees, the State Security Agency, the Ministry of Public Security or the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. Traffic fines rarely apply to cars – invariably older model Mercedes, Volvos or Soviet-era Volgas and ZILs – owned by these organisations. Smoking while driving is banned on the grounds that a smoking driver cannot smell a problem with the car – a sign that reliability is questionable in North Korean vehicles. (Many drivers keep a bottle of alcohol and some cigarettes for emergency bribes.) Petrol and diesel rationing is in force and many petrol stations remain closed due to the fuel shortages. Fuel is bought with coupons to ration supply; much of what is available is of low octane.
People going outside of Pyongyang usually travel by train, and require a travel certificate and ID card and must purchase a ticket in advance. Express trains, known as first-class trains, serve the provinces and major cities. Away from the main lines, poorly maintained track has increased journey times considerably, with the 120-mile trip between Pyongyang and Kaesong taking up to six hours. Shortages of serviceable rolling stock and lack of fuel have meant that trains are generally dilapidated and invariably crowded, with the exception of key express services. Recent defectors have reported that it has become possible to move about with fewer restrictions if drivers are bribed, though checkpoints remain on roads out of Pyongyang.
Shopping is an as-and-when activity in Pyongyang. If a shop has stock, then returning later is not an option as it will be sold out. The recent opening up of more farmers’ markets has provided a source of food and other goods. A new market in Pyongyang’s Tong-il Street that opened in 2003 quickly became a popular destination. Various markets open and close across the city as supplies and political whim dictate.
Newspapers occasionally advertise various goods such as woollen jumpers, oilstove wicks or baskets, and occasionally consignments of various products appear including mirrors, tools, rubber bands or Taekwondo uniforms, as well as other everyday items, referred to as ‘8–3 products’ in North Korea. Higher-ranked citizens can enter the few department stores meant for foreigners, tourists and senior cadres. Since the mid-1980s a wider sector of society has been able to shop at these establishments, though often foreign currency is required. These stores usually have supplies of rationed goods such as clothing, sports goods, cigarettes, beer, cutlery and plates, though people generally consider them expensive.
According to defectors, North Koreans want the ‘five chests and seven appliances’. ‘Five chests’ are a quilt chest, wardrobe, bookshelf, cupboard and shoe closet, while the ‘seven appliances’ comprise a television, refrigerator, washing machine, electric fan, sewing machine, tape recorder and camera. Most ordinary people only have a couple of appliances, usually a television and a sewing machine, though cadres usually manage to accumulate a larger range of electrical appliances. KTV machines have become popular in recent years. School notebooks and textbooks are always in short supply. Possession of a range of appliances and a number of warm blankets is often an indication that a relative has worked abroad in Russia’s far east in logging camps or construction projects, or in other locations, such as China, where workers can earn up to US$300 a month, or that the family has access to the black market or receives remittance money from relatives in Japan.
Food shopping is equally problematic. Staples such as soy sauce, soybean paste, salt and oil, as well as toothpaste, soap, underwear and shoes, sell out fast. The range of food items available is highly restricted. White cabbage, cucumber and tomato are the most common; meat is rare, and eggs increasingly so – these are often distributed by NGOs. When available from butchers, meat is invariably sold by weight and is reportedly usually tough and sinewy. It is impossible to request individual cuts – it is widely believed that the best go straight to the party hierarchy. The quality of the meat is such that most people mince it to make it more digestible. Fish is available, though is rarely fresh and stocks are often pre-packed. Fruit is largely confined to apples and pears. The main staple of the North Korean diet is rice, though bread is sometimes available, accompanied by a form of butter that is often stale and rancid. Corn, maize and mushrooms also appear sometimes.
In the late 1980s more goods were appearing in department stores, which attracted record numbers of visitors, who went largely to window-shop and criticise the high prices. Though more products appeared, the vast majority of new goods were beyond most people’s disposable income. They had largely disappeared from the shelves by the early 1990s. Despite occasional announcements of new stock, these goods remain scarce and expensive.
Work and school
For a high percentage of North Koreans the working day starts around 7.30 with a daily thirty-minute reading session and often exercises before work itself begins. The reading session includes receiving instructions and studying the daily editorial in the party papers. This is followed by the allocation of directives on daily tasks and official announcements. Work starts at 8.00 a.m. Pyongyang is the centre of the country’s white-collar workforce, though a Pyongyang office would appear remarkably sparse to most outsiders. DPRK banks, industrial enterprises and businesses operate almost wholly without computers, photocopiers and modern office technology. Payrolls, inventories and accounting are invariably done by hand.
At midday factories, offices and workplaces break for lunch for an hour. Many workers bring a box lunch, or, if they live close by, go home to eat. Many larger workplaces have a canteen serving cheap lunches, such as corn soup, corn cake and porridge. The policy of eating largely in work canteens, combined with the lack of food shops and restaurants, means that Pyongyang remains strangely empty during the working day with no busy lunchtime period, as seen in other cities around the world.
Work finishes at 5.00 p.m., but not social commitments. Most people are required to remain in the office or factory for the daily ‘Community Session’ and ‘Learning Session’. At the Community Sessions there is a discussion of the results of the day’s work, an evaluation of progress and an anticipation of the next day’s tasks. The Learning Session is more overtly political and can include a ‘Political Ideology Learning Session’ to outline and disseminate party policy. Self-criticism is still popular, as is mutual criticism in socalled ‘colleague criticising sessions’. Criticisms can range from consistently being late for work to wasting national resources. All criticism is based on the ‘Ten Principles for Firmly Establishing the Party’s Unique Thought System’. Solidarity, Learning and Community Sessions are held by the Agricultural Working People’s Union, the Women’s Union and the Children’s League. In December longer meetings are held to take stock of the year. As well as these formal political sessions, occasional ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ or marches often require attendance.
North Korean defectors report that although political sessions remain a major part of life, their strictness and enforcement have lessened somewhat since the economic situation deteriorated sharply in the 1990s. Non-attendance rates have grown among non-party members, who face less censure for failing to appear. Many believe that the party accepts that people’s spare time is now mostly absorbed in trying to find food and queuing. Illness is also a growing reason for non-attendance, as rates of tuberculosis, hepatitis and other diseases associated with the food shortages have grown.
For children the school day starts with morning exercises to a medley of populist songs before finishing with a session of marching on the spot and saluting the image of Kim Jong-il (yet to be replaced by Kim Jong-un in schools it seems). The education system provides one year of preschool, four of primary school and six of senior middle school. The curriculum is based around Kim Il-sung’s 1977 Thesis on Socialist Education, emphasising the political role of education in developing revolutionary spirit. All children study Kim Il-sung’s life closely. However, politics overlays everything: learning to read means learning to read about Kim Il-sung; music class involves singing patriotic songs. Rote learning and memorising political tracts is integral and can bring good marks, which help in getting into university – although social rank is a more reliable determinant of college admission. The children of KWP cadres get priority admission to university. Kim Il-sung University specialises in training KWP cadres and describes itself as the ‘supreme seat of Juche science’, offering courses in economics, history, philosophy, mathematics and biology among other disciplines. Around 14–16 per cent of children go on to some sort of further education. Invariably after graduation the state decides where graduates will work.
Most people have returned home before 8.00 p.m. and are in bed by 10.00. The scarcity of cars, the early nights, the almost total absence of entertainment places, combined with the electricity shortages, mean that by midnight Pyongyang is effectively a ghost city, and it remains so until 6.00 the next morning.
Love, marriage and fun
Returning from work in winter most people first take off their street clothes and don layers of underwear and shirts to retain body heat. Pyongyang’s apartment buildings don’t retain heat well and are generally draughty, forcing residents to cover the windows with plastic sheeting in an attempt to retain some warmth if they are staying in for the evening. Organised activities and a social life are alternatives, though they are strictly controlled.
Football is popular, as are athletics and boxing. New sports are gaining popularity, perhaps due to Kim Jong-il’s rumoured liking for American sports on satellite television and now Kim Jong-un’s interest in basketball. Baseball too is back in vogue. Since the mid-1990s, North Korea has had a men’s and women’s basketball league, initially supported by Kim Jong-il, as part of his ‘height-increase campaign’. A song entitled ‘Basketball is Exciting’ became popular then, as did the Pyongyang Beer Factory Basketball Team, comprising only housewives.6
Social communication is problematic. Most telephone calls are made through operators – an important job. This is a prime occupation for women (all of them are women), and a way to gain access to rumour and information before other, ordinary, workers. Personal telephone ownership remains low, although the Korea Posts and Telecommunications Ministry has had a long term goal to install a phone in almost all households. At present phones are only installed for high-ranking cadres and senior enterprise officials, and are thus technically official rather than private. To boost phone installations requires increasing the number of automatic switchboards, which will make monitoring calls more difficult. In the meantime those who need to make a call can go to a telephone bureau or post office, or, if they can, use the telephone at work. Pyongyang has few public phone boxes. Making a call from Pyongyang to the provinces is reportedly likened to speaking over a ‘walkie-talkie’. Calling overseas is even more problematic, and in any case few destinations are available to most people. Being kind and flattering towards the operator can smooth the process a little. A call to relatives in California or Seoul is impossible. Local calls are expensive, to discourage abuse of the system. It is possible to submit a written application for a home telephone, containing your workplace details, position, the reason for wanting a phone installed and indicating who will pay the bills. One way around this process, though it is risky, is to buy a mobile phone smuggled in from China and connected to a Chinese network. This development has caused alarm in Pyongyang, as with such phones people can make unmonitored international calls.
Many other low-cost activities in Pyongyang are impossible for most people. Despite some new churches built to give the appearance of religious freedom, worship is strongly discouraged, and is punished as ‘superstition’, along with fortunetelling. Pets are rare and the authorities have banned dogs in the home to keep Pyongyang clean, though senior cadres have dogs. Dogs are allowed in the countryside, and some people make extra money raising pups for sale. Cats are more common, though again usually kept only by senior cadres. Pet ownership is susceptible to changes in the political wind – Kim Il-sung was apparently fond of dogs, and those he personally raised were moved to Pyongyang Zoo when he died. When the 13th World Youth and Student Festival was held in Pyongyang in 1989, Kim Jong-il publicly permitted dogs, as well as allowing women to wear necklaces to demonstrate how liberated North Korea was.
There is some street crime in Pyongyang, though incidence is low by the standards of most capital cities. While the authorities regularly clear the city of ‘undesirables’ – which means that illegal salesmen, beggars and prostitutes are not seen – Pyongyang has a criminal underclass that dates back to the days of the Japanese occupation. Among the Koreans resident in Japan who moved to North Korea in the 1960s were a number who belonged to yakuza or other gang organisations, and these gangs have existed ever since. The authorities have cracked down on them, with most criminal families reportedly having been ‘relocated’ to mining areas in Hamgyong province and other provincial cities. Hamhung, the capital of South Hamgyong province, is the crime capital of the DPRK, where gangs apparently mug people regularly and where several deaths have been reported. Travelling to Hamhung is reportedly a risky enterprise, as the gangs watch the train station for likely victims. Bag-snatching and violence are not unknown. However, muggers are generally low-ranking criminals; blackmarket currency exchange and smuggling are more profitable criminal enterprises. The rural farmers’ markets have been reported to be centres of operation for a new breed of extortionists who force the stallholders to pay protection money. In Pyongyang crime is seen largely as a provincial problem, even though it is now affecting tourists and visiting cadres. These provincial criminals, who have exploited their distance from the more closely monitored Pyongyang, have a saying that ‘The law is far away, but the fist is close by.’ With persistent food shortages the activities of smugglers have grown: gangs are known to exist in Sunchon, Chongjin, Nampo, Sinuiju and Anju, as well as Hamhung. Occasionally it is reported in the official media that a convicted murderer or thief has been executed.
Criminals, who have a better income than many ordinary people, aren’t that worried about politics. They have better clothes, often Japanese-made jeans, with the universal symbol of outsider status and rebellion: long hair. However, while they may smoke foreign cigarettes like Marlboro and Mild Seven they still wear the obligatory party badge – though for criminals the most expensive Kim Il-sung badges are often sported as symbols of wealth and power. The gangs have names such as the Weasel Family, the Owl Family and the Cockroach Family. While they live in the provincial cities, they are increasingly travelling to Pyongyang to target the subway and bus stations. With the economic situation worsening, these gangs are reportedly growing in number, forging links with Japanese–Korean smuggling rings and Chinese black marketeers along the border areas.
Smoking is a cheap pleasure. As shortages have grown, many people roll their own. Smoking can be a small act of resistance, as the best rolling paper is considered to be the Workers’ Party daily paper. Loose tobacco can be bought from old ladies in the street who claim that their tobacco is stronger than the next seller’s. Some rural residents grow their own form of weed tobacco for personal use or sale for extra income. Party leaders get a ration of 30–35 packs of filter cigarettes a month. Foreign cigarettes have to be paid for on the black market or at a foreign goods store. The Rothmans brand has traditionally always been a bit more expensive on account of the popular rumour that, before he publicly gave up in 1999, Kim Jong-il smoked Rothmans; a copycat version of the brand is produced called Paektusan. Kim Jong-un has been pictured smoking, though the brand is unknown.
At night women largely continue working in the home. Despite being politically ‘communist’, North Korea is also hyper-traditionalist. Consequently, women in North Korea are workers, mothers and housewives. After a day’s work they still have to take care of the children, the housekeeping, the cooking and other chores. Outside Pyongyang, gardening and tending domesticated animals are women’s responsibilities. Though women are officially described as the ‘wheels propping up the revolution’, they usually have lower-grade jobs, with limited prospects of promotion. On the other hand, women do a high percentage of the farming in North Korea. Single women above a certain age are rare and spinsterhood is frowned upon. The responsibility for making a match and supplying a dowry rests with the bride’s family. Usually weddings are arranged and politically motivated, though in Pyongyang marrying for love is a growing concept and matchmaking is less common now. Pyongyang natives can be snobbish – marrying a ‘country man’ is considered impossible for most women, as this would involve them leaving Pyongyang for the countryside as well as being a step down socially. The party has run a campaign to encourage more love matches, and has officially censured cadres for criticising those seen dating in broad daylight. However, in some areas of the countryside where the preference for male heirs means that men still outnumber women, there has been a long-term shortage of available brides and arranged marriages remain common.
For a married woman, divorce is a major decision. Divorced women are discriminated against and courts usually favour husbands. Remarrying is problematic, though women in the higher echelons of society are increasingly divorcing and living independently. For most women spinsterhood is unthinkable. Nevertheless, North Korea did run a number of Spinster Boarding Houses for such women, who were unable to get housing allocations as singles.
Women accounted for three-quarters of all North Koreans who fled to China in 1997 and declared themselves. They are still leaving and still make up the majority of refugees. Many end up in China’s sex industry but nevertheless declare they do not want to return to the DPRK. Bride snatching is a growing problem, with organised gangs kidnapping women as wives for Chinese farmers; the women are reportedly traded for US$275–300.
Another area of personal life resistant to government control is sex. The government wants continued high rates of childbirth, but, with the present economic situation, food shortages and overcrowding, the number of women wanting abortions is growing. Condoms are hard to obtain (although black-market Chinese ones are available) and other contraceptive devices are rare, often substandard and ineffective, such as the locally produced ‘loop’. Contraception is seen as the woman’s problem. However, they receive only minimal sex education, called ‘sanitation common sense’, at school. The most effective form of contraception is the fact that many people live with their in-laws and the walls are paper-thin. Abortion is discouraged. However, illegal abortions are available, along with a host of ‘farmer’s wife’ cures for unwanted babies. Women nevertheless remain politically active – 40 per cent of party members are female (compared to 12–15 per cent of the total population) – and they do become doctors, professors and cultural workers.
Formal entertainment options are limited in Pyongyang. The city has around eight cinemas, although many shut early due to lack of power. The Yongdae Funfair also remains closed, as do many theatres. The cinemas all screen locally produced movies, the quality of which is improving as film studios, like the Chosun Artist Film Studio, increasingly try to compete with the South Korean film industry. Domestic movies are shown on television and some larger enterprises screen films for their staff. In more cosmopolitan Pyongyang it is occasionally possible to see a foreign film, invariably an old Chinese or Soviet movie; tickets tend to be distributed to key workers and are not widely available. Normal fare at the cinema is heavily propagandist, such as Sea of Blood, The Fate of a Self-Defence Corps Man, Flames Spreading over the Land, The County Party Chief Secretary, Notes of a Woman Soldier or the recent hit Beyond Joy and Sorrow, which include the first on-screen kiss seen in North Korea. The usual plots describe South Korean or American perfidy and end with a victory for the KPA.
For refreshment, a growing number of street kiosks sell locally produced drinks such as cola from the Kyongryon Aeguk Carbonated Drink Factory, and Calpis, a sweet milky water, as well as Taedonggang Beer. Fruit flavoured drinks are popular, including pear, as is omija, a milky drink made from beans; in addition, locally produced and somewhat flavourless ice cream is available.
Holidays are rare, despite a long list of anniversaries and commemorative occasions. Four or five days’ annual holiday appears to be the norm around Kim Jong-il’s birthday, the anniversary of the DPRK’s founding and Kim Il-sung’s birthday, when children are given biscuits and confectionery by their parents. One year many residents of Pyongyang were given winter blankets and clocks, while soldiers were given wristwatches. On these rare occasions Pyongyang’s parks and riverside are crowded and street kiosks do good business. Sunday is ‘walking day’, with public transport schedules curtailed. Live music is often performed by Art Propaganda Troupes singing popular ballads (pansori) espousing revolutionary sentiments. In 2003 the government launched a walking campaign, urging students to walk to school and people to walk to work for ‘health reasons’.
Home entertainment consists largely of television, which has become more widespread, though it remains strictly censored by the powerful Propaganda and Agitation Department of the KWP, which issues monthly guidelines for media coverage. Citizens are required to report purchases of radios and television sets. The authorities control the channels, and have been known to make inspections to ensure sets are not tuned to anything other than official programming. With the exception of certain social categories, possession of foreign books, magazines and newspapers is forbidden. However, some news of the outside world does filter through in a limited way via illegal shortwave radios. The popularity of South Korean songs and older Japanese ballads, dismissed by the leadership as ‘crooning tunes’, and their distribution in recent years are one sign of this.
There are other signs that DPRK society may be changing. The Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun obtained a leaked sixteen-page KWP document circulated to senior officials in 2002, which contained ideas to be drawn upon in public speeches. The document stated: ‘Women are putting foreign-style make-up on their lips and eyelashes, and wearing “short skirts”.’ It added that divorce was increasing and that fortune-tellers were becoming popular. The document also revealed that those with radios were increasingly listening to broadcasts from South Korea and other neighbouring countries, while young people were memorising South Korean songs and bragging about it.
Sometimes change can be small but revealing. In 2003 Kim Jong-il officially raised the bun allocation to North Korean universities so they could introduce hamburgers onto the menu. Burger bars opening up (and then often closing soon after) are a staple of KCNA’s coverage. Additionally, in October 2003 Pyongyang’s first chewing gum factory opened. Gum had been seen as a useless capitalist product but the new factory claims to be producing 1,200 tonnes annually. Other signs of change are the appearance of a GSM mobile phone network that covers Pyongyang, Nampo and Rason Free Port. The DPRK claims that 2,000 mobile handsets were sold in Pyongyang between November 2002 and August 2003. Koryolink, operated by the Egyptian firm Orascom, claimed to provide mobile services to over 600,000 North Koreans as of June 2011. And after several years of virtually no Internet access (despite some connections via Shenyang in China) KCNA announced the launch of a new Internet service in 2003, to be operated by the North’s International Communications Centre and supposedly guaranteeing secure email for no charge. The Internet, however, remains non-existent for the vast majority of North Koreans.
While changes such as lipstick, chewing gum and pop songs may be signs of a more divergent society, the fact that use of mobile phones and the Internet is restricted solely to the elite, rather than demonstrating structural reform, merely reflects how an entrenched elite can sidestep the collapsing state infrastructure as their needs become acute.
Living in the land of perfect bliss
Clearly North Korea is a country of hardship and deprivation for most citizens. In October 1962, at the First Session of the Third Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Il-sung stated that ‘everyone will live in tile-roof houses with a hot bowl of rice and beef soup every meal after the completion of the following seven-year development plan.’ Kim also stated in 1979 that the DPRK was a country where ‘our people are enjoying a happy life to the full, without any worries about food, clothing, medical treatment and education. There is no better “paradise” and no better “land of perfect bliss” than our country.’ Clearly these aims have not been realised. Pyongyang remains orderly, as indeed does most of North Korea compared to the crowds that throng China’s increasingly market-driven and sophisticated streets. Generally quiet and clean streets are the hallmark of Pyongyang in contrast to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which, while remaining nominally communist, have massive commercial centres with a plethora of small businesses and bustle. The contrast with Seoul is even starker. Democracy is, of course, completely absent; though people may know their own local representative, they rarely have much idea who governs even neighbouring districts.
Health care in Pyongyang is a growing problem, with a lack of antibiotics and basic medical equipment such as stethoscopes and bandages. Although hospitals are reported to be generally clean, supplies are low and equipment is antiquated. Traditional and herbal medicine has become increasingly relied upon, with modern pharmaceuticals scarce. Power shortages affect hospitals too: the Red Cross estimates that only 50 per cent of essential operations are carried out during the winter months, when temperatures in Pyongyang can reach –20ºc. Most hospitals are overburdened. Sariwon Hospital near Pyongyang, for example, which covers a catchment area of 1.6 million people, is reportedly short on energy, medicines and ambulances. In the 1990s, as well as famine, North Korea saw tuberculosis and cholera epidemics, along with rising rates of hepatitis, malaria, dysentery and general problems associated with vitamin deficiency and what aid agencies call ‘severe nutritional distress’. Poor drinking water, and now increasingly common water shortages, mean the level of waterborne diseases is high, as is that of respiratory and other diseases associated with pollution.
That personal hygiene is also becoming an increasing problem due to the shortages is apparent in the government’s ‘Cabinet Decision No. 20’, calling for the eradication of fleas and lice, apparently a major problem. Also, hygiene is affected by water shortages and the closure of many public baths, which were once common across the country. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in North Korea, only 25–50 per cent of the population can rely on piped water, with many pipes broken or contaminated and community wells not functioning.
For those who do question the system in North Korea the penalties are stiff. For North Koreans political re-education camps are a real threat, along with torture and forced labour. Estimates of the number of such camps range from ten to fifteen large-scale institutions holding in total between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners. In 2002 the Far Eastern Economic Review revealed satellite photos of one camp, the No. 22 Camp near Hoeryong, it claimed held 50,000 people, whose crimes ranged from not showing appropriate respect for the leadership to flaws in their family history. Pyongyang does not admit the camps’ existence. The vast majority of prisoners are held on politically related charges, and engage in agricultural, factory or mining work. Execution reportedly increased in the 1990s, partly as a response to the breakdown in social order during the famine. According to the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘an estimated 200,000 political prisoners [are] detained in the DPRK’, though speculation on the exact number is rife. The report notes that
Female prisoners underwent forced abortion, and in other cases babies reportedly were killed upon birth. Execution is a common punishment for petty crimes. Capital punishment and confiscation of assets are used for a wide variety of ‘crimes against the revolution’, including defection, attempted defection, slander of the Party or State, and listening to foreign broadcasts.
The overall effect of the repressive atmosphere is that it is impossible to be silent in the DPRK and not show overt support for the regime; nor is it possible to create an obviously private realm – all life must be lived within the socialist Juche consensus. The punishment system is further strengthened by the policy of yongoje, or family purging, whereby any individual crime leads to discrimination against the family and close colleagues of the transgressor. This reinforces an atmosphere of self-censorship. Defector testimonies indicate that the degree of self-censorship exceeds that in other states, such as China, where people still have two modes of expression: one for talking with family and friends and another for talking with anyone else – the so-called standard political talk, or what the Chinese call biaozhun shuyu.
The Sinologist Perry Link has described the situation in China as ‘an essentially psychological control system that relies primarily on self-censorship’ whereby the authorities can carry out arrests and punish but intimidation and control rely largely on the fear of this happening. While this system may be starting to break up in China, it remains rigid and enforced in North Korea, with informing on family and colleagues still encouraged. It is also more extensive, often stretching back several generations in a family to search for ‘unreliable traits’, with everyone divided into one of three groups: the core class, the wavering class and the hostile class. Within each class are numerous subclasses. Moving class definition is difficult while rations, education, work, health care, housing and access to goods all depend to a greater or lesser extent on your designated class.
Society is constantly monitored by the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) and the State Security Department (SSD), both the effective praetorian guard of the regime, and at a local neighbourhood level by bans or street committees. The result is that most people keep their head down and look after themselves and their family as far as possible. This is the pattern of life for most people despite periodic reports of attacks on cadres, the plotting of army coups and the stoning of elite cars in Pyongyang; others simply decide to leave and walk to China.
No government in the world is currently more reclusive, more suspicious, more averse to international contact than Pyongyang. Overarching the entire social system is the national political concept of Juche. To understand fully the theoretical rationale of the North’s economy, its emphasis on military tradition and its relationship to the wider world, it is crucial to appreciate Juche’s theoretical underpinnings, application and effect on the country’s development.