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Joint survey by Dong-A, Asahi reveals reality in North Korea

Joint survey by Dong-A, Asahi reveals reality in North Korea

Posted March. 18, 2014 23:56,   


Although North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in the world, seeds of capitalism have started to grow in the nation. A joint team of Dong-A Ilbo and Asahi Shimbun has met North Korean defectors to listen to what they witnessed in North Korea.

The defectors interviewed have confirmed that North Korean people admire people working in foreign nations, such as loggers in Russia and workers in China`s bean farms because they make more money than doctors and teachers, the people traditionally admired by most people in North Korea.

Park Geum-joo, a 42-year-old woman who defected from the North in July 2012, said, “People who came back from Russia or China after about two years had a very good life that all the neighbors envy of.” Although the North Korean government takes 70 percent of the wage that North Korean workers earn overseas, they can make a good living with the remaining 30 percent in North Korea. People who worked as a logger in Russia bought a TV, refrigerator and closet after coming back to North Korea. And they still had money for starting a new business. This is not something that ordinary workers in North Korea can expect.

However, it is not easy for North Korean people to get such an overseas job. Park said, “To become a logger, you should be a party member and under 36. And you cannot take your children overseas.” Although doctors and teachers are still popular jobs, even doctors should come out to a market to make money in North Korea these days.

In a market, 1 kilogram of rice is traded at 2,500 North Korean won. The so-called “cat cigarette,” which is often used as a bribe, is traded at about 1,200 North Korean won per a pack and the antibiotic penicillin about 1,000 North Korean won. The North Korean defectors say everything is there in the market, including rice not only from North Korea but also from China and South Korea, which is called “Honam Rice,” meaning rice from the southwest of South Korea. Even cosmetics imported from the South are traded in the market although the brand labels are removed for sale.

With regard to education, free education is only in name now. North Korean people should pay for education on their own.

People should pay for textbooks, school uniforms and other school supplies by themselves. The same goes for medical services. Basic medical supplies like antibiotics and sterilized gauze are not distributed to public hospitals, so patients should buy medicines in the market and take them to hospitals to get treatment. While the official price for penicillin is 38.60 North Korean won, its market price is 1,000 North Korean won. It is a commonplace that managers of drug administration offices illegally sell the antibiotic to merchants at 700 to 800 North Korean won and embezzle the margin. To get a treatment in North Korea, you should first go to a market and buy medical supplies such as antibiotics, bandages, masks, plasters and syringes.

Power and water shortages are also a problem in North Korea. Taking a shower every day is impossible. People usually take a bath once in two weeks. Water is supplied between 5:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. only, so people store water in a tank for later use. In winter time, it gets more difficult for people to take a bath or shower because they can hardly afford to heat water.

Most apartment buildings except for some luxurious ones in Pyongyang are equipped only with traditional squat toilets for public use. Residents of the apartment buildings line up in front of the toilets every morning because they don’t have a private one at their place.

Korean Japanese Kim Seok-gyu who lived in Pyongyang for 10 years said, “Even the apartment buildings where North Korean elites including high-ranking officials in Pyongyang live do not have a central gas heating system like the one in South Korea. People rarely use a gas stove for cooking. Instead, they cook rice in a small furnace.”

Since power supply is available only during holidays, it is not convenient to watch TV or DVD time to time. Some people bribe officials to draw power that is supposed to be supplied to businesses into their houses. Things are not that different in Pyongyang, the most affluent area of North Korea. “Except for the central district of Pyongyang where party officials reside, power is supplied only from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.,” said Kim. “The high rise buildings in Gwangbok Street of Pyongyang may look gorgeous, but they were built so carelessly that water is supplied only up to the second floor. And people living above the floor should come down to the ground to get water.”

Moreover, there is no freedom to sleep as much as you want. People usually get up at 5:00 a.m. in summer and 6:30 a.m. in winter. On snowy days, they should get up even earlier to clean up roads, which usually takes about one and a half hours. One North Korean defector said, “You can’t oversleep because a bell will be ringing to wake you up. And the town manager starts educating people from early morning.”

Women’s appearance is also subject to public intervention. A woman in her 20s who is a granddaughter of a Korean Japanese repatriated to the North and is currently living in Japan after defecting from North Korean in 2006 said, “North Korean women should keep their hair black and not too short. My hair is originally brown, so I was often pointed out on the street. Some made complaints about my rings or earrings.”

But the rules apply differently depending on social status. A man in his 30s who is a son of a Korean Japanese repatriated to the North and is currently living in Japan after defecting from the North in early 2000s said, “The father of one of my friends was a high-level police official. I was shocked that he received U.S. cigarettes and high-end canned food from former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a gift. (The regime) teaches ordinary people that the U.S. is its enemy and arrests people who own made-in-U.S. products while high-ranking officials enjoy affluent lives using U.S. products.”

It is no surprise that there were controversies over the 100 percent approval rating in the recent election for the members of the Supreme People Assembly, a rubber-stamp legislature of North Korea. Kawasaki Eiko, a North Korean defector living in Tokyo, remembers elections in North Korea as the most awkward thing. According to her, there was only one candidate in one constituency. The turnout was always 100 percent and the approval rating was the same. An inspector was stationed right outside a polling station to arrest voters who marked “x.” These people are immediately sent to a labor camp. This is a North Korean style election.