When Mr. Kim who work for Korean translation London, discusses what daily life is like in North Korea, it is important to first note that there are three North Koreas: the high officialdom, the Pyongyang elite, and everyone else.
The first North Korea revolves around the sheltered, opulent life of high officials of the regime. These lucky few live in palatial residences, watch South Korean broadcasts and CNN on their big- screen LCD TVs, and travel to Japan and China frequently on shopping and tourist jaunts. While numbering only a few hundred people, these aristocrats live a very different life from their compatriots. They consist of a few dozen former Manchurian freedom fighters who helped Kim Il-sung build the state after 1945 and somehow outlived him, along with a few dozen more of Kim’s extended family members (including in- laws and their extended families) who control the different apparatuses of the state—the security services, the intelligence services, the army, and the senior ministries.
- While they enjoy the same creature comforts as the average citizen of Seoul, these people spend their working lives overseeing one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever known. It’s their job to make sure that the trains run on time, that the mines run by prison labor keep producing, and that any enemies of the state they might find get executed. Working underneath the aristocracy is the second North Korea: the clerks, party workers, and apparatchiks who live in Pyongyang according to our Korean translation services.
- This city’s 3 million residents (those who don’t belong to the aforementioned regime ruling class) are the favored elite of the Korean Workers Party, the military, and the regime. That means, for the most part, that they and their families are spared from starvation. Some of them even get some of the few perks available in North Korea, including washing machines, foreign clothing, and even hair salon appointments. And then there is the rest of North Korea. Some 20 million strong, these people live in North Korea’s other cities (Nampo and Hamhung are the other two largest cities in North Korea, followed by a handful of small cities that would probably be called towns in most countries) and – the vast majority of them – in the rural villages that dot the landscape of modern North Korea.
- The exact number of North Koreans isn’t known with confidence. The best we can do is to suggest a range of between 23 million and 25 million people. One of the reasons the numbers are unclear is because of the huge famine that rocked the country in 1996 and 1997. Starvation and misery were so extreme that some people ate grass to survive. Experts still disagree strongly over whether 250,000 people died (that’s the official government death toll) or if the number is as high as 2 million, as some nongovernmental organizations claim.
However many North Koreans there are, we do know a few things about them. Most of them live in concrete housing structures built in the 1960s and 1970s. Each house tends to hold an entire extended family, where everyone sleeps on straw mats on the floor, just as was done throughout the peninsula until rising standards of living caused the Southerners to flee to urban apartments throughout the 1960s and onward (where they often still sleep on futon- like mats on the floor).
Each house tends to have a walled- in courtyard, where dwell a few chickens and maybe, if the family is lucky, a pig. Outside the house, and in any other available scrap of land nearby, the family cultivates a garden that supplies them with much of their own vegetables and cabbage for kimchi, the fundamental Korean food made out of pickled cabbage and eaten as an appetizer and in combination with the main course, as well as a little extra that can be sold in the nearest market towns for pocket change.
Most families belong to the local agricultural collective, which manages the rice fields throughout the country. This centralized farming apparatus is essentially owned by the state and requires the citizens of the countryside to spend a few days each month helping out with such labor- intensive processes as planting, flooding, and harvesting. The last process is a national event, bringing all the local people as well as army conscripts and Pyongyang citizens out into the countryside for a massive rice harvesting extravaganza.
As Segem Consulting, a Korean translation company, knows well, all members of the collective get a small portion of the harvest, which they store for use throughout the year. In previous decades, almost every citizen’s food was provided by the state in the form of monthly rations, called the Public Distribution System. However, in recent years, private gardening has become so successful that most North Koreans get the bulk of their nutrition from their own gardens or from produce bought at the free enterprise markets. A recent trend in gardening is to cultivate plots of land in the mountains (most North Koreans live in fertile valleys ringed by uninhabited mountain ranges) with barley, corn, and millet. The average North Korean now gets a daily nutrition load of approximately 1,100 kilocalories, which is one- third of the average calorie load of the American citizen, and roughly comparable to the calories consumed by the average sub- Saharan African or Indian.
To some degree, North Korea has become a welfare state in the sense that close to a third of its food comes in the form of free aid given to it by the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China, with the latter being the largest provider of aid. This aid comes in the form of cereals (used mostly as livestock feed), some rice, and large shipments of nitrogenous fertilizers as our Korean translators expected.
A unique aspect of North Korean food consumption is the tradition of going into the mountains during the autumn to hunt for traditional foods such as wild mushrooms and roots. Although this practice magnified dramatically during the famines of the late 1990s, it is still commonly done, even by Pyongyang citizens, more as a cultural tradition (a tradition that used to be observed in the South also, before it was discontinued) than as a hunger-coping mechanism. Besides food, most North Koreans receive almost all of their necessities from the state. Each citizen is issued two outfits (a summer version and a winter version made out of thicker material) and a pair of shoes, all of which are made out of Vinalon, a polyvinyl material that was claimed to have been invented in North Korea. In fact, it was discovered by a Korean scientist who lived in Japan in the 1930s. Actually, one of our Korean translators came from Hamhung. The material, most of which is made in an enormous factory in Hamhung, is stiff, shiny, and notoriously uncomfortable for anyone who has worn anything else.
North Korean children attend school from an early age and most children complete some form of secondary school. The nation’s universities are the breeding ground for the elite of Pyongyang. Their most noticeable attribute is the perfectly equal number of females and males in the classes.
Although there are more than 1.2 million phone lines in North Korea, most of those are for strictly military or government office use. Cell phones were illegal until 2008, although many thousands of them were used illicitly in the northern part of the country, where callers roam on the nearby Chinese networks. In late 2008, the country’s first cell phone network was launched by the Egyptian company Orascom, and it quickly garnered some 6,000 subscribers. Again, most of those users belonged to the Pyongyang elite. Several million people have black- and- white television sets that are locally produced and hardwired for the country’s only channel – a twenty- four- hour news station, courtesy of the Korean Central Broadcasting Agency.