Oct 2, 2012

13 shocking facts about ordinary people's life in North Korea

I recently finished reading Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. My understanding of life in North Korea hitherto was based on my interaction with a North Korean defector who was the keynote speaker on our graduation ceremony of summer course in Hong Kong and a couple of documentaries I had watched, most notably the documentary called “Inside North Korea”. This book, in which Demick follows the life of six North Koreans of various walks of life, provided me a much deeper understanding of what it's like to live as an ordinary citizen in the 'Hermit Kingdom'. Here are the 13 facts about life in North Korea that I found shocking:

1. It is compulsory for every household to have the portraits of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Nothing else can be hanged on the wall except the portraits, not even the family pictures. The portraits are supposed to be cleaned regularly with the special piece of cloth provided by the government. The authorities can come for a random inspection any day and any time and having a dusty portrait can land you in prison or labour camp.

2. Even in the best of times North Korea can produce only about 60 percent of the food needed for its population, and it currently cannot afford to import the rest. In the 1990s, more than 1,000,000 people died of hunger and starvation. The hospitals however were forbidden to list the cause of death as starvation. When United Nations and other international provided food for the starving population, the food was taken by the army to feed themselves and sell the rest in the black market. The undernourishment has caused a whole generation of North Koreans to have stumped heights and abnormal body structures. A North Korean child on average is 8 inches shorter than his/her South Korean counterpart because of undernourishment.

3. By 1996, even frogs and stray dogs were almost extinct from North Korea because people ate them in absence of any other food. People even ate grass and barks of trees to survive. Several people were executed for cannibalism as well. Majority of the people who stole things from defunct government factories to sell them for food or started a private business to survive during the famines were later executed for violating the 'socialist' principles and 'giving up to the charms of capitalism.'

4. During the 1980s (still is?) North Korea  was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each  family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away. In exchange, they were given a chit  certifying that they had done their duty and that chit would later be traded for food. Failure to provide bucketful of human excrement would result in punishment for the family.

5. Less than 1 percent of the population has access to Internet. The 1 percent consists of elite students and government officials. Majority of the population doesn't know what Internet means. Similarly, until recently general people didn't have access to cell-phones. One of the defectors, whose story has been included in the book, was an elite student in the Pyongyang University and after growing tired of the restrictions that denied him access to knowledge defected to China where he for the first time, found out about Internet. He never returned back.

6. All the outside books, publications, films and broadcasts have been banned. Citizens can legally use radios and televisions only after getting a license and after the sets have been pre-fixed to play the nationals stations only. Anyone found tampering with the radio sets and television sets to gain access to foreign, especially South Korean channels is sent to prison. General public doesn't know till date that man has already walked on moon.

7. There are spies everywhere. Spying on one’s countrymen is something of a national pastime.  Neighbours denounce neighbours,friends denounce friends. Even lovers denounce each other.  Even a small complaint regarding the terrible shortage of food or a joke made about Dear Leader during drunken stupor or a critical remark made regarding the news in the television  attracts questioning and gruelling by the Secret Police and often results in imprisonment of the 'offender'. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents. Children ratting out on their parents and relatives are featured as heroes in newspapers and other medias.

8. Ordinary citizens need a travel permit to visit cities or places other than their hometowns like in the medieval Europe. Ordinary citizens rarely get a travel permit to Pyongyang as it is reserved for the bureaucrats and elites of the army.

9. Until the 1990s, girls  weren’t supposed to ride bicycles. There was a social stigma—people thought it unsightly and sexually suggestive—and  periodically the Workers’ Party would issue formal edicts, making it technically illegal.

10. Most of the cities of North Korea have a fictional history. The government has altered the history to undermine the role of Japanese in their development and glorify the Worker's party. Senior people born before the Korean War are forbidden to talk about the history of the cities.

11. North Koreans currently use a calendar known as “Juche Calendar” which begins in 1912  with the birth of Kim Il-sung . So, year 2012 is Juche 100 for North Koreans. Kim Il-sung is the eternal president of the country.

12. Children are taught from their initial years in school that Japanese, American and Christians are evil and war mongers and it is the Great Leader who is saving North Koreans from being killed or harmed. First grade math book has following questions:

“Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?” 

“A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries  messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. He steals two of her  apples. How many are left?” 

“Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were  killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?”

All of the larger elementary schools have one room set aside for  the purpose of teaching about the Great Leader, called the Kim Il-sung Research Institute. This room is kept clean, bright, and better heated than the rest of the school. The Workers’ Party conduct periodic spot checks  to make sure the school janitors were keeping the place immaculate. The room is treated like a shrine. Even the  kinder-gardeners know they qrenot permitted to giggle, push, or whisper when in the special Kim Il-sung room.

13. The North Korean society is divided into a hierarchy system as discriminative as caste system prevalent in countries like Nepal and India. Every North Korean belongs one of the three categories, namely - the core class, the wavering  class, and the hostile class . Government officials, dictator's family, relatives and favorites, resistance fighters who fought against Japanese and their families, people who fought for North Korea during the Korean war, members of the Worker's Party with trusted loyalty to the dictator fall in the core class and enjoy special privileges accordingly. Wavering classes consist of people whose loyalty to Dear leader is questionable whereas poorer segment of the population, South Korean POW, Japanese sympathizers fall under the hostile class. Hostile class is the first to suffer any persecution brought on by the government and are assigned the toughest and least awarding jobs. Children from hostile class, no matter how good they are, rarely get an opportunity to pursue higher education in major universities or live in Pyongyang. People from hostile class are constantly under surveillance. If a person from core class marries a person from lower classes, his/her prospects of a good career is doomed.

If you have any more information, please share in the comments below!