What is It Like to Be a North Korean Citizen?


North Korea’s reputation is often shrouded with images of nuclear weapons and the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un. With all the press North Korea has received since its third nuclear test in February, it’s interesting to note that the nation has still managed to guard many of its secrets from the outside world. Despite having a population of about 24.5 million, many people around the world are left wondering what it’s like to be a North Korean citizen.

While many people, even some experts, have come to the conclusion that North Koreans are identical beings who follow their leader unquestionably, as former British ambassador to Pyongyang John Everard put it, "North Korea is a real country with real people." It cannot be assumed that Kim’s actions are genuinely supported by all of his citizens.

The North Korean regime has become well-known for its profound use of propaganda to control its citizens, but like everyone else, citizens of North Korea all hold their own opinions of the decisions made by their government. "North Koreans are sharply differentiated human beings," Everard wrote. The only difference is that North Koreans must silence their opinions in order to avoid being punished by the authorities.

Although news of North Korea has, for the most part, become completely restricted to the actions of its leader and nuclear weapons program, the human dimension of the nation is still there. The everyday concerns of North Korean citizens "are often not so different from our own: their friends, how their children are doing at school, their jobs and making enough money to get by."

But despite these similar characteristics, most North Korean citizens have come to value luxuries that a majority of the developed world has come to expect. "Although they all had access to showers, none could remember when they had last had one with hot water," Everard described. It is also important to note that, like the social classes present in the United States, there are North Koreans who lack the necessary requirements to sustain satisfactory lives as well as those who are considerably wealthier than their poverty-stricken counterparts.

The interests of North Korean citizens often align with the interests of their foreign counterparts. Like many individuals, they also wonder what life is like in other parts of the world. "I once lent one set of DVDs of 'Desperate Housewives' and met the same person the next day with big rings under their eyes. They had sat up all night and watched the entire series in one sitting," Everard wrote.

North Korea has suffered from economic and social problems for decades under the Kim family’s regime. Many people from around the world question how North Korea’s government still manages to control its citizens. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean regime has maintained its grip over its citizens through its political propaganda. The regime constructed its propaganda around a philosophy known asjuche, which translates to "self-reliance." By establishing his independence from the international community, Kim has utilized juche to affirm a sense of nationalism among his citizens. This nationalism has been embedded in the North Korean society for decades and as a result, this ideology is all that they have ever known.

Although Kim’s regime has garnered a reputation for its defiant acts of provocation and dislike for the Western world, the same cannot be said for citizens of North Korea. ”They had been taught to hate Americans, but most of them did not. One of them told me that they had worked with Americans during one of the thaws in relations with that country, had liked them and hoped that they would return," wrote Everard.