Accessibility links

Korea: People Live A Restricted Life

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Following is the second of two interviews with Joseph Williams, an international expert who has worked with the UN in North Korea on-and-off for four years.

RFE/RL asked Williams to describe the conditions of daily life in North Korea for foreigners and ordinary citizens.

Q: North Korea is frequently portrayed as a society that is closed to the outside world. You lived and worked there for extended periods over four years. How much contact are foreigners able to have with ordinary North Koreans?

A: Foreigners live in the capital, in Pyongyang, rather isolated because they live in a compound which is fenced and walled and well-guarded and they can move freely in and out but no North Korean is allowed to get into the compound unless that Korean works for one of the embassies ... And these people have to report to an office which is at the entrance to the compound, they report to the office before they go inside the compound and when they leave they have to report back to the office ... Most of the embassies are inside the compound ... and the international organizations and the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) all live in the compound.

Q: Can foreigners travel freely outside of the capital?

A: No, they can travel inside the capital freely, without any kind of harassment by the people or by the authorities, but if you need to go outside the capital you need to have a special permit and then you need to be accompanied by an escort. And usually these trips are organized by the government twice or three times a year, whereby they take all the foreigners to designated places, not more than three or four places.

Q: You have said that foreigners and North Koreans are also segregated economically because the government issues different currencies which limit them to different spheres. How is that?

A: The Koreans themselves have their own currency which is called the brown currency and foreigners, when they change their dollars or their hard currency, they get convertible currency which is purple in color. And there is another kind of currency which is red, and this kind of currency is given to citizens of countries which used to be North Korea's allies, like the Russians, the Chinese, Syrians, Mongolians and Vietnamese ... In addition to that, foreigners within the compound have a shop, and that shop only accepts U.S. dollars and you even get the change in dimes and quarters and cents ...

Q: But you are not permitted to go into an ordinary shop and buy there?

A: No, we are not permitted because we don't have the local brown currency and we are not allowed to use the currency. But ordinary citizens can go to the dollar shops, the Koreans can change money into dollars if they have money coming from Japan or China, from Koreans living abroad who send money to their families. I think this is one way for the government to get back the dollars sent home, just to force the people to go and change the money and get the convertible currency. They go to the dollar shops ... because this is the only place they find what they want. Otherwise, the local shops are almost empty apart from some candy or a bottle of cider.

Q: How would you characterize life for ordinary North Koreans. What freedoms do they have?

A: The good side is that every Korean has a home, and that could be one room, it could be a shared room, a flat, a house, or anything. But nobody is without shelter. That's number one. Number two is that these places are provided with electricity or water, though for the last year and-a-half it's been very difficult for them to get water or electricity. In the capital, I think nowadays they get one hour or two hours of electricity a day, and water maybe an hour a day or two hours every two days, it depends on the location.

Q: What freedoms do citizens enjoy?

A: Well, they are free to go from home to work ... but from what I heard they are not allowed to go from one district to another district within the city itself unless they report themselves to the door keeper, because each apartment building is guarded by one person, with a band on his arm, who is the guy in charge of the building. But to travel outside Pyongyang, that needs special permission. And people from outside Pyongyang cannot move from one district to another, from one village to another, unless they have special reasons and they must get permission. And they cannot get to the capital itself. The capital is a privileged place, only people who render some kind of exceptional service to the party will be given this privilege of visiting the capital and that would be publicized in the newspapers and on the TV, saying this group of people -- usually they have them in groups -- have been given the honor by the leader, by the dear leader, to visit the capital. Otherwise nobody can.

Q: How is the capital?

A: The capital is a nice city, a very modern city, because it was built from scratch. It has very wide streets, it is very clean, I would say it is maybe -- I am not exaggerating -- maybe the cleanest city in the world.... The reason why is that everybody is cleaning, everybody is rubbing and scrubbing and you can see children and women, and even pregnant women, cleaning the roads, the walls, the windows, everything ... The population is two million and it has to be two million at all times. If the number increases -- and every six months I think they do some kind of a census within the city itself -- extra numbers will be sent to the countryside.... Something interesting: you can hardly see a person with a disability. All disabled people are sent to the countryside because foreigners who come to the capital should see that everybody is perfect.

Q: Visitors who come back from North Korea often say that every wall is covered with slogans, that there are huge placards and posters everywhere. Is this true?

A: This is what characterizes the city. Wherever you go you see the smiling face of the great leader, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Nowadays you can see lots of his son Kim Jong Il, also, lots of slogans on every single building. There is no single building without a slogan on it, or a picture, or a big huge mural, and these are all lit during the night while the whole city is in darkness ... On special occasions, people go to these pictures and they bow in respect to the leader, sometimes they lay a bouquet of flowers and sometimes they go and cry there. They refer to them in their propaganda as holy shrines and, for example, there is a bench in the zoo in the capital which is a special bench which says "here sat the great leader Kim Il Sung" and nobody is supposed to touch that one. So, anything that is touched or even walked on by the leader, well nobody should touch it because that has become a sacred place.

Q: How are things in the countryside? Is there electricity?

A: From the reports we heard and from being there many times, I think the countryside has a much, much lower standard of living. People are very poor ... I think it's a very harsh life, no heating, no water, they have to go to the river and wash their clothes and swim in the river and they use candles or lanterns in the night, so I think it's not easy.

Q: Is the lifestyle of the government and party members in Pyongyang visibly different from the life of ordinary citizens?

A: Absolutely. I think they live in luxurious homes, special high-rise buildings. As a matter of fact, they have a compound which is also sealed off and no ordinary Korean can get into it, it is well guarded by the army and inside -- you don't know what is inside -- but what you see if you stand there, you see only the latest Mercedes Benz coming in and out and Korean party members with the red star on them. And if you look at the buildings, each apartment has an air conditioner ... you have villas inside and ... sometimes you can see satellite dishes. But outside people are not allowed to watch any foreign broadcasts. People, if they do have a radio, they have FM only, because it is against the law to have a shortwave radio.

Q: And ordinary people, do they have a sense of resentment, or acceptance, of this?

A: I am sure they do (have resentment) but, you know, the Koreans are very submissive. They accept what they see because they have been educated to accept that and it is part of their tradition that the ruler is god and god should be worshipped and whatever god does, that's god but they cannot do it themselves ... that's why they try to describe Kim Il Sung as the Sun of the Nation because in their old religion they used to worship the sun, so they refer to him as the Sun of the Nation and where he is buried now, in fact embalmed, not buried, it's called a shrine and people go in organized groups to visit the place. It is a must that each Korean goes to visit that place. So, they pay their respects there and it is like a temple.