I spent about 10 days in North Korea, getting a taste of what the country is like. Here are my impressions based on this trip.
Life in North Korea
Trying to find out what life is like in North Korea is a bit like trying to find out if the light turns off when you close the fridge door. You can never truly look inside and discover anything with certainty, but by talking with people and keeping your eyes open, you can start to get a basic sense of things.
The capital: Pyongyang
For citizens in the Pyongyang, life is certainly better than in the countryside. North Koreans need permission to live in the capital (there are roadblocks on the country’s streets that stop you moving around without permission) and the city is generally made up of people loyal to the party and those who have a higher position in society. At some special events we went to like a funfair and a FIFA soccer game, it wasn’t unusual to see people with mobile phones and digital cameras. But this certainly wasn’t a common sight on the streets, presumably because technology like that is too expensive for most people.
On the streets of North Korea’s capital themselves, there’s an eerie feeling of vacuity – an emptiness evident by the lack of vehicles, sounds of traffic or crowds of pedestrians. In theory there are 3 million people in Pyongyang but it seemed quieter than a small country town. It felt a bit like one of those post-apocalyptic movies, with the irony being that the world thinks it will be North Korea that will wreak the apocalypse.
There is a sense on normalcy, though, on the public transport. The old buses and trams are full of people (obviously they don’t own cars) and the subway was packed at peak hour when we took a ride. The average North Korean isn’t commuting from home to the office, though. Many are employed in construction, manufacturing or the military. None of this is easy work, by the way, and the construction teams we saw were doing a lot more by hand than you would expect in any developed economy.
A department store on a main street was deserted every time we drove by it, just a lonely attendant standing behind a counter. Unlike a normal capital city, there weren’t restaurants, cafes, bars or shops lining the streets. The Pyongyang skyline was filled with the grey concrete apartment buildings that house the population, where they presumably spend a lot of their time. At night, though, many of the windows were dark (either because of power shortages or because they were uninhabited) and it felt like a city designed with the promise of a metropolis but without the ability to deliver. Glimpses inside some of the lit apartments revealed simple, bare abodes with prominent photos of the leaders on the wall.
While most people seem to live in these rudimentary apartments, there is still a lot of grandeur in the public buildings and it’s hard to know whether the residents see the contrast as an insult or a source of pride. One of the more impressive buildings is the Children’s Palace, which we were told is a place where schoolchildren come after class to learn music, sport and arts. Inside is a massive marble foyer, which seems a bit excessive for some young kids. We were treated to a concert, which was extremely impressive, though. In keeping with the ideals of the regime (and The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s artistic bent), children spend a lot of their spare time practicing singing, dancing and gymnastics.
Rural North Korea
Outside of the capital, any buildings of grandeur quickly disappear, save for the large bronze statues of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Green fields of corn and rice stretch from the road to the mountains on the horizon. The countryside is lush and green but this belies the poverty and rustic lifestyles of the citizens.
Everywhere we look there is hard manual labour. This is not a region with cars, let alone any machinery to tend to the land. Old women, backs bent, work in the rice paddies; young boys carry large sacks in the arms along the side of the road; a man cycles past with a dead pig strapped to the back of his bike.
It looked like extremely basic living, the kind of life that may not have changed for decades, and it was similar to a lot of the simple farming in South-East Asian countries. Except, of course, for the large signs in the fields and on the mountains, the messages of affirmation from Kim Jong Il in red and white, inspiring everyone to work harder for the good of the fatherland.
As I mentioned earlier, there are military checkpoints on the main roads to stop people leaving their area without permission. As we passed through the small cities along the way you could see they remained true to the communist architectural style of concrete with concrete. The larger apartment buildings looked like housing commission of yesteryear, while the small houses seemed to be in a constant state of construction.
In the regional cities, like most places, there was a noticeable lack of cars. But people didn’t gather on the streets to socialise, they walked the footpaths with purpose but without determination. Military personnel strolled through the cities, while schoolchildren travelled in small groups. It also struck us that everyone outside the capital, regardless of rank or position, is thin. It was hard not to notice how gaunt each person is, still easily noticeable even under their drab pragmatic outfits.
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We stopped at a small factory in one of the cities to see the ‘great industriousness’ of the North Korean people. It was a water bottling plant and was staffed exclusively by women. Clean and basic, it seemed effective but had a lot less automation than you would expect in 2011 (and you have to assume this was one of the better factories if tourists were allowed to see it).
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Poverty and torture?
Stories from citizens who have escaped North Korea paint a picture of daily life as full of back-breaking work, with so little food that they scavenge in the bush, and with the constant fear of retribution from the government if they step out of line or dare question the conditions. With our tour guide minders controlling our accessibility, we certainly didn’t see anything along those lines. But, at the same time, you never got the sense that people were particularly joyous. There was rarely laughter on the street or spirited conversation between friends that you would expect in a normal country. To my eyes it seemed as though people were resigned to monotonous daily lives and were simply going through the motions because it was easier than challenging the situation.
Having said that, the North Koreans were always happy to smile and wave at us as we passed by. When we were able to catch those moments, you could see the warmth in their hearts and realise that there was a lot more going in inside than their dispassionate expressions let on.
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There were a few times in Pyongyang when we saw the locals relax and truly enjoy themselves. At the soccer game between North Korea and that other football powerhouse Tajikistan, for instance. Or at the funfair, for which there is a weeks-long waiting list. Our final day in Pyongyang was also National Day and there were celebrations of singing, dancing and games in the park (with a little too much alcohol for some of the locals) and the highlight – a mass dance with thousands of people in the square at dusk (which we all joined in).
Regardless of what life has been forced upon these people – and we will probably never truly understand what that life is – they are still innately human. It was nice to see the moments when that came out, when their teeth flashed into a smile, when the rhythm of the dance came naturally and not from education, and when they found enjoyment in the simple things in life.
Life in North Korea: Food rations, power failures and no free speech
When David Slinn got off the plane in Pyongyang in 2002, his first impression of the city was that it was, in a word, “Soviet.”
“The architecture. The feel on the streets. The lack of animation. The lack of advertising,” all made it feel like the Soviet Union, he said.
“On the first morning I was there, I went for a walk in the area around the embassy. And what struck me was just the lack of cars. All I could hear was the sound of shuffling feet as people went about their business.”
In the early 2000s, North Korea was led by Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. The country was recovering from a massive famine in the 1990s which killed between a few hundred thousand and three million people, according to estimates. And although it withdrew from a nuclear non-proliferation agreement in 2003, it was still engaging with the world through multi-party talks.
Government buildings surrounding the Kim Il-sung Square. Kim Il-sung Square, constructed in 1954, is a large city square in the Central District of Pyongyang and named after the country’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung.
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Slinn, who served as the United Kingdom’s first ambassador to North Korea for just over three years from 2002 to 2006, lived in Pyongyang at a time when there was a feeling across the European Union that North Korea wanted to open up to the world.
“It didn’t work,” he said, bluntly. “The North Koreans did not follow through on their earlier signs of engagement. But having embassies there plays a useful role.”
In telephone interviews from Vienna, where his wife Heidi Hulan is Canada’s newly appointed ambassador to Austria, Slinn told Global News about life in the reclusive country and what North Koreans thought about the rest of the world.
Pyongyang, where Slinn was based, is a city that currently has a population of about 2.8-million people – about the same population as Metro Vancouver. It’s generally thought to be wealthier than the rest of the country and like many capital cities, it’s filled with grand monuments. It’s only about 195 km from the South Korean capital of Seoul, but life north of the DMZ is very different.
Life in North Korea
Foreigners like him were prevented from speaking freely with ordinary North Koreans, he said.
“It would be wrong to claim that there were free and open conversations with North Koreans. There weren’t then and from what I understand there aren’t now.”
But over time, he said, he was able to put together a picture of how people lived.
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Many were dealing with the breakdown of the government system, where everything was provided through the work unit, he said. Rations, housing, equipment and more used to be provided, but that was no longer the way things worked.
“People had to try and adapt, to start having to look after themselves and after their interests. That was a challenge and it came through in some of the things they said.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, North Korea’s GDP per capita is one of the lowest in the world, roughly on par with Sierra Leone or Haiti – though, of course, due to the country’s secretive nature, its GDP is an estimate only.
Although things have improved since the famine of the 1990s, hunger and malnutrition continue to be widespread, according to a 2014 United Nations report.
Most of the people Slinn knew in Pyongyang lived in sparsely furnished apartments, with intermittent access to electricity. And they assumed the rest of the world lived in similar conditions.
“Some people assumed that we had power cuts, that we in the West had power cuts 18 hours a day as well. And they’d be in shock when we said: ‘Actually, that’s not the case.’”
Others assumed that there was strict food rationing and food shortages in all other countries too, he said. “I pointed out that food rationing in the U.K. was phased out in 1954 and people were free to buy what they wanted. And I’d see people’s reactions to that sort of comment and it was quite interesting.”
In the occasional carefully monitored visit to the countryside, he was able to see how people lived outside the capital. “Just by driving through towns, driving through villages, walking around, you get a feel for the level of deprivation, the level of their hardship.”
One person approached him at a hospital, looking for help from the British embassy, he said, “because they had received no supplies from Pyongyang for five years.”
None of this was hard to see, he said.
“They didn’t try to hide it. Part of the system’s narrative was the reason for it: of course, it was all the Americans’ fault. That was the official narrative.”
North Koreans had an answer to every question, he said, and questions about bad things were usually answered by blaming the U.S.
“How the Americans were trying to strangle the country, strangle the people and it was only the bravery, the intrepid nature of the people, that was allowing them to survive.”
People honestly didn’t know much about the outside world, he said.
“I asked somebody, did it ever occur to him to question what the main newspaper was telling him was the truth? And he looked at me and said, ‘Why are you asking that?’ in genuine confusion. Genuinely perplexed.”
It made diplomatic negotiations difficult. Usually, both sides have a shared understanding of the other side’s position, even if they disagree, he said. But the people he spoke with only knew the regime’s propaganda on Western countries, and a couple of extra tidbits of information they picked up.
“How do you try to talk through a dispute with somebody when they have no understanding of Western society?”
Canada has mostly stayed out of the current U.S.-North Korea dispute, though it has condemned the country’s missile tests. Canadian negotiators did however successfully obtain the release of Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim in August after he had been imprisoned in North Korea since 2015.
This picture taken on Sept. 23, 2017 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 24 shows an anti-U.S. rally in Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang. Tens of thousands of Pyongyang residents gathered to laud leader Kim Jong Un’s denunciation of U.S. President Donald Trump.
North Koreans have a better understanding of the outside world now than during his stay, thinks Slinn, and the government control over outside information has diminished.
“A fair number of the population are now watching South Korean movies illicitly. A fair number are now listening to foreign radio broadcasts.
“But I’d be prepared to wager that a large proportion of the population outside the capital have absolutely no idea what’s going on outside the country.”
Slinn believes that getting North Koreans more information is one of the best ways to change the country.
“Then they can see, they can judge for themselves how bad their plight is and how the regime narrative is a pack of lies.”
He also hopes that sanctions will put pressure on the regime.
“Sanctions get a bad press but I think that sanctions may yet work, may yet have an impact.”
Having a nuclear-armed country with a young, inexperienced leader that we know so little about is “a cause for concern.” Kim Jong Un is also unlikely to negotiate away his nuclear capabilities, said Slinn, but he hopes that defence and deterrence will work, as they did during the Cold War.
In the meantime, he thinks, countries should “prepare for the long game” and hope that increased information helps to change North Korea from the inside out.
“It’s a longer term game, but it’s one that may yet pay off in North Korea.”
If what you’ve read has captured your interest I strongly recommend for you to go to the web addresses I have included, see the photos and videos and learn all you can. Then pray for relief for these miserable people Their plight proves again, When God and Jesus the Christ are ignored, the world really can become HELL.
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