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-tenth as 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 backpedalled, 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 widespread 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 was a 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 cyberwarfare. 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 (or at least lip-service to it),
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! Also, be sure to check out our other video
called “The Average North Korean vs. the Average South Korean – People Comparison.” Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

100 thoughts on “What It Is REALLY Like Living In North Korea?

  1. And nonetheless the number of foreign visitors to North Korea keeps growing… I'm not sure why though… 🤔

  2. I really like the content – the things you say are indeed 100% correct!
    – However this might sound like I am nitpicking: why make characters with blonde hair, an afro/dreadlocks ( 4:49 or 5:40 or 10:32 or 11:18 in many of those situations they can't really be "just tourists"… ), and other obvious white and black characters while explaining the story how they work in North Korea and praise the "Beloved Leader"…… I am pretty sure North Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the entire world nowadays. I doubt there are any black and white citizens live in North Korea – most would be considered Western spies and executed (remember – tourists are not citizens, and not even tourists are 100% safe – see the story of Otto Warmbier)…..
    – Anyway, the audio is correct, but the video is still distracting a bit when you tell a story about an enclosed country with dictatorship and 99,99% Asian population.

  3. Your life could be completely normal if you were born in North Korea, if your born somewhere it doesn't mean you have to live there or grew up there.

  4. There will be wars, though they may seem overwhelming, it is not the end. It's in the Bible, Matthew 24:6, NKJV. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”

  5. Other Info:
    [{Censored By the North Korean Government

    북한 정부에 의해 검열]}
    Death Death Death
    Poverty
    [{Censored By the North Korean Government

    북한 정부에 의해 검열]}
    People Coughing Up Bark
    [{Censored By the North Korean Government

    북한 정부에 의해 검열]}

    [{Censored By the North Korean Government

    북한 정부에 의해 검열]

    [{Censored By the North Korean Government

    북한 정부에 의해 검열]

    Man these guys are really hackers…
    they hacked my account

  6. All this for $$$$$$$$ for the goverment…the rest not important can go die…break the rules u be thrown into the labor camp.

  7. South Korean Christians float balloons with Bibles attached across the DMZ to encourage dissension against tyranny and defection to freedom.

  8. They actually still doing socialist reforms to stop big privates.nice at least there is still a few communist in this party

  9. I am from North korea. U.N gave U.S. green card to our family. I am really happy living in the U.S. EVERYThing Is perfect!! I always thank to the U.S. I can eat everyday. When I was in north korea, We couldn't eat foods for 3 days because there's no foods. We sometimes ate soap, soil, and crickets. America is heaven. I am at college for now. I really don't understand why so many Americans complain their country.

  10. Though I comprehend fear is the reason the society chose to submit to the Kim regime, I hate that the current generations of North Korea allowed the control of the Government to extend up to seventy years. From what I have seen in both documentaries defector interviews, many only obeyed to survive while the individuals who wanted to survive risked their lives to flee. The Kim family and his allies ate well and had luxurious treatment that all of the people may not experience. Why did the citizens continue to have children (mostly the poorer areas of North Korea) is confusing to me. I am curious when will North Korea will be free from Kim Jong-un, the secret Police and all citizens regardless of social class can be helped.

  11. It's funny, in 1st world, you can throw your food out every few weeks and buy again effortlessly and cheaply, in a Socialist/Communist regime of North Korea and Maoist China it's a luxury.

  12. 18:35 – "A steady stream of defectors make their way out of North Korea every year."

    That's a terrible euphemism to use to describe starving, oppressed and impoverished people.

  13. very informative, thank you.
    it would appear that some north koreans are living just fine. they enjoy their jobs, they have enough money, they indulge in forbidden fun….
    and other people have nothing, struggling to simply meet each days basic needs, doomed to a life of difficulty from birth.
    how is that different from life in america?
    oh, you can't complain about it out loud? like that makes anything better….

  14. So the informal economy is the saviour of the majority of the population yet the dictatorship either stifle productivity or garnish a percentage off the already struggling and destitute

  15. People who wirry about best Koreas missles dont understand how nuclear weapons work. Their weapons are too big to fire on rockets and would require a cargo plane boat or sub.

  16. Walking behind an ox is way better than what the new "farmers" in South Africa. You can find several videos of South Africans plowing fields walking behind other south africans… not even kidding.

  17. If you look at the history of European Monarchs in the Middle-Ages and during the Florentine and Renaissance eras…… the Europeans ran their countries….. the same way …. always the double-standard.

  18. Dikawal president babal dan askarnya yg berkerja dibawah perintahnya.. Rakyat tempatan pla umpama sekadar jdi keldai dlm negara sendiri.. Hanya org gila sja yg nk p melancong sna..

  19. You guys illustrate everything as super happy. Everyone is smiling and all the buildings are really colorful and happy looking. I'm just a little confused

  20. why are all of these cartoon characters smiling, healthy looking Europeans with nice clothes? I was a US Soldier on the DMZ in the early 1990's. I had to observe North Koreans from an Observation post in the DMZ. NO ONE smiles, everyone is emaciated and drab, land is barren with no animals, they have no electrical power

  21. I feel so bad for the people who live there… I really wanna help 💔😭
    Its like Ww2….. 💔 But for north korea..

  22. Well, it’s hard to know exactly what life is like their. I mean, they’re the most secretive country on the world. Where a lot of stuff is just staged for visitors. We have a few ideas about what it’s like, but not a full picture.

  23. Songbun is an absolute lie. Wow y'all are so skeptical lol
    Songbun literally doesn't exist. It's American propaganda.

  24. "class matters for the worker party, but not for the capitalists [which, incidentally, don't really exist either]"
    lol no hidden message in this video, folks

  25. Trump seems to like Kim and already has control over 2 of the 3 branches of government, with the AG in his pocket.
    Maybe, the US will find out what it's like to live under a dictator.

  26. The way the chartoon characters move in these video's is straight up freaky… Why must they all sway back and forth…

  27. This whole video is about North Korea, but most of the animated graphics are caucasian. WHY? You’re creating your own content. There’s no excuse. Your graphics should match the content your presenting. Stop begging lazy. Stop the white washing.

  28. So they're communist on the surface, but capitalist underneath? How hilarious. But go ahead, keep on telling everyone how capitalism doesn't work and it's evil.

  29. A really sucky part of the smuggling operation is that its a gamble sometimes they are taken into slavery somewhere else by the smugglers so sometimes its a choice between living hells

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *