In Depth

What is life like in North Korea?

Hermit kingdom under greater scrutiny amid increasing worries about political stability of region

As Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore this week, many hope the US president will raise the issue of human rights.

Asked by a reporter over the weekend whether he would voice concerns about North Korea’s gulags, or prison camps, “Trump said all issues would come up at the summit”, reports CBS News.

Daily life in North Korea has come under greater scrutiny over the past few years as worries about political stability in the region have intensified.

If you “merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern-day North Korea”, says HuffPost’s Tim Urban.

“It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind, a cult of personality beyond anything Stalin or Mao could have imagined,” Urban continues, adding that the secretive country keeps “both the outside world and its own people completely in the dark about one another - a true hermit kingdom”.

So what is life like in North Korea?

A truly repressive state

Human Rights Watch describes North Korea as “one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world”.

According to the influential NGO, the regime “curtails all basic human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and freedom to practice religion. It prohibits any organised political opposition, independent media, free trade unions, and independent civil society organisations. Arbitrary arrest, torture in custody, forced labour, and public executions maintain an environment of fear and control.”

A 2017 report by the International Bar Association (IBA) estimated that the North is holding between 80,000 and 130,000 political prisoners, who suffer intense persecution.

According to the report, these abuses include “systematic murder (including infanticide), torture, persecution of Christians, rape, forced abortions, starvation and overwork leading to countless deaths”.

The IBA describes specific incidents of prisoners tortured and killed for their religious affiliation, with North Korean officials told “to wipe out the seed of [Christian] reactionaries”.

Daily struggle

All North Koreans need permission to live in the capital Pyongyang (there are roadblocks on the city’s streets to prevent unauthorised travel). Most of Pyongyang’s inhabitants are supports of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), who have a higher position in society.

Much of the city 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. When the switchover time arrives, “there is a mad rush of children as they head for their friends’ apartments across the road”, says Paul French author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.

“The scarcity of cars, the early nights, the absence of entertainment venues, and the electricity shortages, mean that by midnight Pyongyang is effectively a ghost city, and remains so until 6am the next day,” he continues.

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,” says French.

The range of food items available is highly restricted. The main staple of the North Korean diet is rice, “though bread is sometimes available, accompanied by a form of butter that is often rancid”, he adds.

Outside the capital, “any buildings of grandeur quickly disappear, save for the large bronze statues of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung”, grandfather of Kim Jong Un, says travel blog Time Travel Turtle. Green fields of corn and rice stretch from the road to the mountains on the horizon, “but this belies the poverty and rustic lifestyles of the citizens”, notes the site.

Enforced celebrations

The Mass Games takes place four days a week for three months every summer. It involves 100,000 performers, many of them young children, “depicting the glorious history and thriving modernity of North Korea”, says HuffPost’s Urban. “The backdrop is a stunning tapestry made of 20,000 kids holding up large coloured cards.”

The Games perfectly sum up North Korea, he adds, as an event that is “centered on propaganda, stresses the collective over the individual, and makes no sense as a priority given the state of things”.

A reason to leave

The number of successful defectors peaked in 2009, when 2,914 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, but since then the number has more than halved. Only 1,418 made it across in 2016, according to latest figures from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which predicts an even smaller figure for the following year.

“Increased border controls by both North Korea and China are thought to be the primary reason for the drop,” CNN reports.

But increasingly, North Koreans “are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned,” says The Washington Post.

“Market activity is exploding, and with that comes a flow of information, whether as chit-chat from traders who cross into China or as soap operas loaded on USB sticks,” the newspaper explains. “And this leads many North Koreans to dream in a way they hadn’t before.”


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