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.
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).
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.
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.