North Korea: Facts , info and all that

SONY DSCNine men crossed the overpass at Beijing’s Second Ring road. Their Kim badges, matching suits and haircut automatically screamed out : We are North Koreans. They all work at the Embassy, probably part of the Propaganda Department who send out weekly special notices. It’s always one to two A4 page of well written words denouncing USA and the West for their sabotage and ongoing attacks on North Korea. South Korea are often mentioned too.

I told them that I’ve just visited their country and through broken Chinese, we chatted about their Juche, their country and her achievements.

One man pointed to his left coat pocket and said

“Maybe some will not understand me but I do love him. Kim Il-sung will always be my most beloved leader. He shines in my heart.”

We parted ways and my memories of North Korea came flooding back. It would be great to work in North Korea for a year- man! that would be a great experience.

It’s always great to learn a bit about the country that you are planning to visit. A couple of months ago, my barrage of questions and the kindness of Mr Ren and Ms Zhao helped me to take a deeper peek into the hermit kingdom. 20160127_182757I highly recommend Paul French’s <North Korea The Paranoid Peninsula- A Modern History>, a wonderful secondary source for understanding more about the country.

SONY DSCNorth Korea- 24 million people (2011) with 3.2 million living in Pyongyang (flat/levelled ground)  is a “powerful and proposers nation” according to her own motto. Self-reliant, socialist, Juche, Songun (military-first)  and what some critics call a dictatorship; the people of North Korea follows the teachings of Kim Il-sung and his family. I understand that many will have a strong view towards the Kims and see this love for their leader as an act of insanity. However, one must not forget that the world we live in is unique and different and everyone have the right to be “different.” The North Korean’s love for their leaders is no different than some people’s love for the royal family and celebrities. Maybe in the eyes of the North Koreans, they are also insane. I like this huge contrast which is why I enjoy travelling. Unfortunately, more and more countries are becoming similar in nature so I’ll always have a soft spot for North Korea. It does feel cool to see the sort of life that my parents and grand-parents once lived through but from a development perspective, I do hope that the country will welcome and not suppress innovation and economic trade.

“US is the world’s largest seller of weaponry. It earns thousands of times more money selling guns, warships and fighter planes than we do. We are called an evil nation, we are subjected to international trade boycotts for doing the same thing America always does” – Kim Ming-ho North Korean diplomat

North Korea wants a reunification and North Koreans, at least our guides, all referred the South Koreans as their “dear brothers and sisters brutally separated from the motherland by the Americans.”

Reunification Road- drive all the way down and you will arrive at the DMZ

The ultimate goal of the two Koreas is reunification.  

If the peninsula do reunite then it will look more like the South. Economy will get dragged for a couple of years (maybe) and perhaps demographic problems facing the South will be fixed with a new population. As long as there is the Kim family, there will be no reunification. I kind of want the royal tombs to reunite ( Royal Tombs of Korean kings and Queens are separated with most in South Korea and a few lonely ones in the North) Seeing video clips of relatives torn apart by the war and their tearful departures is :(


I will be back

Random Observations and Odd Facts

Below are from my own observations, replies from my two tour guides and snippets of information from Paul French (PF)

  • The average wage is 4000 to 6000 won per month or 4 USD to 6 USD per month. ( I overheard this from the guides of another tour group. It is far too low and I do hope I can verify this). Paul French stated in his book that NKW 6000 per month is considered quite high. Some are paid NKW 110 to 2000.
  • The tour guides didn’t answer my question about for prices. It tends to fluctuate. French on page 141 said that rice costs NKW 40 and a kilo of pork costs NKW 170.
  • North Korean news = delightful entertainment.
  • Anything that is iconic ( Juche Tower), important (Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace) and considered to be a major accomplishment of the country (e.g. Nampo Dam) will be used as the backdrop for the local news broadcasts. No doubt, you will also see it in posters, plays, murals +books .
  • No advertisements can be found on the streets, only propaganda posters and party slogans.
  • It is an isolated corner of the world and tourism will gradually open up (hopefully). They are thinking of constructing a new airport.
  • Not a lot of cars ( any licence plate that ends in -216 belongs to the senior cadres- PF) or bikes on the roads. Most of the people walk and use the bus + metro.
  • In the late 2002, North Korea switched USD to the Euro as their preferred hard currency (PF). Chinese rmb are also widely accepted.
  • Housing is provided by the government. It features similar structure and facilities. Not every apartment has an elevator- only the new ones do.
  • Education/food coupons +production/ health care/ housing are free/subsidised and (or) state-funded.
  • I won’t be surprised if power cuts affect hospitals and supplies are low.
  • Contraception if seen as a woman’s problem and condoms are hard to obtain. Abortion is discouraged although illegal abortion is available (PF).
  • Productions are owned by state-run enterprises. No private ownership of factory.
  • North Korea suffered a huge famine in the 1990’s and struggles with food production (only 10-12 % of the country is arable- PF).
  • Paul French wrote – according to Seoul, a 5% reduction in DPRK’s defence budget will resolve their food crisis.
  • 6-8 years of compulsory military service. People who study a special program at university are exempted from this.
  • The Korean People’s Army is one of the largest on earth. There are over 9 million military and para-military personnels in the country. 70% are deployed to the South of Pyongyang (PF).
  • Mothers are encouraged to have more babies.
  • DPRK Colloquialism- pretty girls are called short dress or short skirts. Ugly girls are called long dress, pretty boys are called long pants and a quick marriage + divorce are colloquially known as paper dress and pants.
  • Food coupons are given per person per month. You can get 14 kg of rice, sometime 10-12 kg depending on the market, 5 kg of meat (pork, beef, mutton) and 10 eggs. You receive tokens for fruits and milk must be purchased at the market. The government does not hand out coupons for milk.
  • The propaganda department photoshop Kim Jong-Un’s eyelashes and lips and pretty sure other things to give him that beautiful image.20160213_161052
  • America like to think that North Korea listens to China- they don’t. China is trying to reduce aid and is more than aware of the problems that lies ahead should North Korea collapse. Think about the refugees (it is easy to cross the border) and the presence of American troops will ruffle China’s feathers. The last thing China wants to see is chaos in the Korean peninsula and American troops right at Beijing’s footsteps. Therefore, the current solution is to continue with the Six Party talks and hope that things will be alright.