July 1, 2009 / 9:32 AM / 10 years ago

Life in North Korea: lies, potatoes and cable TV

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Koreans who recently arrived in the South live in a world of contradictions where their upbringing instills them with reverence for Kim Jong-il but their daily struggle leads them to believe he is a brutal despot.

Men watch file footage of a North Korean missile launch, which took place in 1998, on television at the Seoul railway station in Seoul April 5, 2009. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

By all accounts, they say North Korea is gradually spiralling out of control, its economy dysfunctional while people are suspicious of one another because of a network of informants.

They also speak of a sense of normalcy in the North. Most left for the chance of a better life in the South but they are uncertain if they can find their way in the competitive capitalist state.

The following is a snapshot of life in North Korea, compiled from accounts given by refugees who recently arrived in the South. Their identities are not disclosed because they fear persecution for family and relatives back home.


It is a political crime to talk about the family of leader Kim Jong-il but many recently arrived refugees said the average North Korean is probably aware of foreign media reports that Kim’s youngest son Jong-un may likely take over. Most North Koreans have no idea that Kim, 67 and thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago, has three sons.

“In Pyongyang, you take it for granted that leadership will be inherited,” one refugee Park said, adding she knew Kim Jong-il had two daughters and a son and his name was Jong-nam. That is the portly and oldest of Kim’s three known sons, believed to have fallen from his father’s favor years ago after being arrested for trying to enter Japan on a forged passport.

“I don’t want to say Kim Jong-il is bad,” another refugee Choi said. “It’s the people who report to him who are not doing their job right. They make false reports.” Choi said she knew from experience that crop production is something that gets most often falsified “so as not to make the General worry.”

Most refugees still call Kim Jong-il the “General” as has been taught to them by state propaganda and have bought into, at least partially, his carefully crafted cult of personality.

Park said she knows Kim often stays up at night worried about the lives of the people. “It is true that he has sacrificed so much for the people,” she said. “The general has aged a lot,” she said of her impression of seeing recent pictures of Kim looking frail and perhaps debilitated by the stroke.


North Korea is the world’s most militarized state compared to its population with a standing army of more than 1.1 million. Service is mandatory and can be as long as 10 years. The might of the army is “invincible,” according to state media but the refugees are rather cynical about the ill equipped force.

“When I look at them, the army that I’ve seen will be busy running away from a war,” another refugee Kim said. “Maybe they have the real army for war kept away at some other place.”

Low morale and corruption in the military are so widespread that it is the norm rather than the exception for soldiers to be extorting bribes from merchants crossing the Chinese border.

“We say something is wrong with you if you did not save enough in 10 years of service at the border to go home, get married and start a family,” Kim said.


Despite efforts by authorities to keep foreign influences out, there are far fewer secrets about life outside the reclusive state. Soap operas from the affluent South are popular prime time entertainment for those lucky to own a satellite dish or DVD players. However, Police searching for banned foreign programing are known to cut power for entire apartment blocks and jail anyone caught with an illegal DVDs stuck in players.

“In the evening, we would go out and turn the dish slightly more toward China,” Kim said, so that the family can catch an installment of South Korean soap opera aired by TV stations in Yanbian in China’s northeast Jilin border province.


The food supply in the North may have improved slightly in the past two years due to better weather, but Jo said food still is hard to come by. “Even last year, we had a campaign in Kangwon province of getting by with two meals a day. Soldiers sometimes would just get three potatoes a day.”

There is a thriving market economy in North Korea at the local level where the average person buys food staples and consumer goods often made in China. Private plots of land are increasingly used for providing food for one’s family, said Cho Myungchul, a researcher who was an economist in the North before defecting to the South 15 years ago.

The state controlled economy has collapsed and goods people receive from the communist government are often traded in the capitalist “people’s markets,” Cho said in an interview.

“People have learned to live independently. The North Koreans’ ability to be self-sustaining has become much stronger,” Cho said.

That has fueled discontent among some people. “Everything used to be free under President Kim Il-sung,” Jo said referring to the state founder who died in 1994. “Some people now say why do we have to pay under the son?”

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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