By Daniel McDowall, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
July 11, 2023
Understanding what ordinary life—or what may be considered ordinary—in North Korea is a challenge. A major difficulty in investigating “normality” is identifying the groups that can be considered ordinary. One North Korean escapee explains that 10% of the population can be considered upper-class, a further 10% middle-class, and the remaining 80% poor. However, there are groups outside of this 80% that may also be considered relatively “ordinary.” This includes those who do not live the luxurious lifestyle of the top elites, but do not experience the serious poverty that is common in the rural areas of the country’s northern provinces.
This article aims to explain what “ordinary life” is like in North Korea. It also seeks to identify the features of North Korean life that are arguably unique to the country—features that are so routine they make up a significant part of day-to-day life. Lastly, it also discusses how North Koreans navigate areas of ordinary life, such as family, relationships, and leisure.
Poverty and Famine as Ordinary Life
North Korea has long faced severe food shortages. In December 2021, the World Food Programme estimated that around 40% of the population was undernourished and 18% of children suffered from impaired growth and development due to chronic malnutrition. Noland, Robinson, and Wang blame North Korea’s food difficulties on the “overcentralization of decision making and an emphasis on large state farms.” Additionally, the prioritization of Pyongyang’s food supplies has implications for rural provinces. For example, in August 2011, Russia sent North Korea 50,000 tons of food aid, 80% of which went to Pyongyang.
Mismanagement, as well as badly conceived priorities, led to disaster in North Korea in the 1990s. The consequence for North Koreans was staggeringly harsh. In 1998, surveys revealed that 15.6% of children aged 6-84 months had acute malnutrition. Additionally, although the regime’s estimate of the death toll during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s was 220,000, external estimates put it as high as 2.5 million. Jae-Young Yoon discusses the role of everyday language in referring to this famine. He explains how “if someone died of hunger you couldn’t say that they were so hungry they died. You would say they were in so much pain they died,” and that all manner of references to “hunger” should be replaced by “pain.” This is indicative of not only the harsh experiences of North Koreans during the famine, but also the regime’s attempts to prevent people from directly discussing the food situation.
Some individuals were not exposed to the worst consequences of the famine. Young-mi Park discusses how she “never tried the so-called maize” that most North Koreans ate. As the head (inminbanjang) of a neighborhood watch unit (inminban), Park had a more privileged position and better access to food. This differential provision of food is intended to foster loyalty and compliance. The regime leverages food to stabilize itself at the expense of ordinary North Koreans. Political loyalty leads to greater food privileges, and ultimately a greater chance of survival. The report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights discusses how the regime prioritized food toward people it saw as most useful for its own survival, at the expense of those that it perceived as expendable. For example, an agent in the KPA Escort Command--responsible for guarding Kim Jong-un and his family--recalled how people within this organization received good rations, even during periods of famine.
Since the famine, food shortages have continued to be prevalent in North Korea. The food situation has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which the regime has used as an excuse to tighten border controls and increase repression. After the regime shut its borders in response to the pandemic, China’s food exports to North Korea fell by 80%. The weather also compounded difficulties in producing enough food, with typhoons destroying 100,000 acres of cropland in 2021, and 2022 being far too dry with months like April and May receiving only 70% of the average expected rainfall. The current food crisis is reportedly the worst the country has experienced since the ”Arduous March” of the 1990s. Testimonies from a recent BBC report include harrowing images of people starving--even in Pyongyang--and that beggars can often be found dead on the street.
Because of the widespread food shortages experienced by a large proportion of North Koreans, hunger, poverty, and significant food shortages can be considered features of “ordinary” life in North Korea. The regime deliberately uses food as a means of control and compliance.
Work, Self-Criticism, and Policing: "Ordinary" Features Exclusive to North Korea
There are several characteristics of life in North Korea that can be considered ordinary to its residents. They may be extraordinary to people from other countries, but these features are embedded in everyday life in North Korea. This includes work assignments, self-criticism sessions, policing methods, and strict controls on information.
Work assignments and the way in which they are distributed are critical aspects of everyday life. North Koreans work long, arduous days. For the most part, men join the military for ten years or so after secondary school, while most women are assigned to clerical or blue-collar work. Women who do not gain employment are expected to join the Korea Democratic Women’s Union.
Work assignments are almost always arbitrary. They are not just strenuous, but often dangerous. Kyung-hee Kim recalls how “no matter how capable we might have been, we had to work the mine. It was a wretched life. Even with no modern facilities or equipment useful for health and safety, we were told to work […] when they set dynamite they don’t wait until the risk is clear. One day dozens of people died that way in a rockslide.” Many North Koreans work in dangerous conditions. There is virtually no chance of social mobility because of the centrality of one’s songbun (socio-political classification). Those with a higher songbun may have alternatives. Jung-go Park explains that “the Party in North Korea is the best organization to work for.”
Outside the workplace, North Koreans are expected to attend regular self-criticism sessions in which citizens are expected to “evaluate how well they had complied with directions from the party and state.” Not only do North Koreans evaluate their own performance, but also those of their fellow citizens. This practice begins at a young age. For the most part, the offense that North Koreans admit to is a small one, such as “not trying hard enough when carrying out their communal neighborhood duties.” Personnel from the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party record these confessions and prepare reports that are sent up the chain of command. For wrongdoings, individuals may be given a “warning, severe warning, or even Party disqualification. They could be punished with labour with no pay for a month or several months. They may even receive revolutionary re-education.” These regular self-criticism sessions likely have psychological impacts on the population, in a way that strengthens the regime’s control over the population.
Similarly, the internal security agencies are a major element of everyday life. According to a 2012 study, the Ministry of State Security (previously known as the State Security Department or SSD) and the Ministry of Social Security (previously known as the Ministry of People’s Security or MPS) employ a total of 260,000 people in a country of 25 million. The Ministry of State Security searches out those accused of disloyalty and other anti-state crimes and runs North Korea’s political prison camps (kwanliso), while the Ministry of Social Security acts as a national police force and operates the long-term prison labor facilities (kyohwaso). Contact with these security services is a part of daily life, and North Koreans have to cooperate with “on-the-spot street inspections where security officials search for anything suspicious.”
These searches can be intrusive. One escapee notes how officials would search phones to look for South Korean colloquialisms in text messages as evidence of using foreign media. Furthermore, security services often conduct unannounced raids and searches of people’s homes. These searches do not require warrants and can happen at any time. Officials sometimes cut the electricity supply to a city block and then conduct raids, as the lack of electricity means that VHS tapes would be stuck inside the player. Naturally, as technology has progressed, catching “offenders” is no longer this simple.
This is all part of the regime’s efforts to strictly control access to information. Hassig and Oh note that “during the Cold War, citizens of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had more information available to them about life outside their country than North Koreans do today.” Limited knowledge of the outside world solidifies the regime’s hold on power. As technology has developed, it has become easier for North Koreans to access outside information, especially if they have relatives or friends outside of the country. Jung-ok Choi explains how “since we heard from our relatives in China a lot, we knew how China was and how South Korea was all from stories.”
Family, Schooling, and Alcohol: "Ordinary" Features of North Korean Life
While North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship, there are aspects of life that are recognizable elsewhere. This may manifest itself in the shape of family life, going to school, and even how regular people find entertainment despite the difficult circumstances they are in.
Naturally, these tasks can be much more difficult in North Korea due to a lack of investment by the regime in basic infrastructure. For example, washing and maintaining hygiene are not always straightforward. People wash themselves at home using a tank of hot water or visit a public bathhouse. Most North Koreans opt for the public bathhouse, though typically wash once every two weeks. These bathhouses are generally large rooms with a pool of heated water, with people using small buckets to rinse themselves. Clothes are mostly washed by hand using soap, rather than detergent.
Attending school in North Korea is also unusual, especially terms of the curriculum and activities. According to Hassig and Oh, the school year begins in April, and the first half hour of school is devoted to political messages. Classes begin at 8am. Students are taught to be “good communists and loyal supporters of the regime” and are instructed in “academic skills necessary to make North Korea a kangsong taeguk [strong and prosperous country].” Interestingly, some students are “exposed to capitalist ideas to prepare them to do business with foreigners,” despite the regime’s hostility toward such ideas. Students engage in community services after school, and they attend self-criticism sessions once or twice a week. These children are also a part of official organizations, such as the Korea Children’s Union for children aged 9 to 13.
Family life can be a challenge in North Korea. Before 1988, upon having a baby, mothers were given 10kg of rice and other benefits to help feed the baby, such as powders and formulas. This has now been phased out, making it harder for mothers to feed their young children. Additionally, John Everard, the former British Ambassador to North Korea, describes how “all the homes described to me seemed to be very crowded. Several of my friends talked about the intricacies of getting out in the morning – carefully sequenced breakfasts and use of space to dress to ensure that nobody was late for work or for school.” Multiple families sometimes share the same unit.
The difficulties of starting a family because of restrictions on space and state help are likely compounded by extremely conservative social attitudes. Ji-min Kang speaks of the North Korean education system’s failure to teach sex education, and how sex is the “forbidden fruit that can destroy one’s wealth and power.” The absence of sex education and lack of information about contraceptives means that there are great social difficulties when unexpected pregnancies happen outside of marriage. Sex before marriage is frowned upon, especially so in rural provinces, where even holding hands in public is not deemed socially acceptable.
Nonetheless, North Koreans are much more liberal when it comes to alcohol and leisure. Even children have been known to partake in beer drinking, according to North Korean escapees like Je-son Lee. Tudor explains how “Eumjugamu--drinking, singing, and dancing--are part of Korea’s heritage, and have been for centuries. So when North Koreans drink, music will never be far away.” For young North Koreans, this may come in the shape of using abandoned buildings and dancing to South Korean music, an activity that is strictly forbidden by the regime. Purchasing alcohol is relatively simple. Lee explains that one can obtain alcohol by going to the factory and paying in cash, or by going to a local market where you can find domestic, imported, and home-brewed alcohol. While this is illegal, Lee explains that “the authorities cannot control it.”
Criminal Activity and Law-Breaking as "Ordinary"
Lee’s description of illegally purchasing alcohol is one of several prohibited activities that happen regularly. Law-breaking is extremely common. According to Changyong Choi’s “Everyday Politics” in North Korea, “every interviewee, regardless of occupation, age, and gender, answered that he or she had participated in a legal or illegal market activity and testified that ‘it was impossible to live without the market, and all the necessities were purchased from the market.’”
As a result of the failure of the Public Distribution System, North Koreans engage in private market activity to survive. Residents of urban areas trade with China, and some people are able to make money, especially in Pyongyang, by selling imported shoes and famous brands. One North Korean escapee explains that he would pay to take leave from his work and earn up to 300,000 won in a month, a much higher figure than he would otherwise have received. Private enterprise and market activity also extend to food. People may try to plant their own fields, though these are stifled upon discovery by officials.
Consumption of foreign media is a similarly prevalent illegal activity that ordinary North Koreans enjoy. Chinese and South Korean dramas are the most popular, and they make up the bulk of the foreign content consumed in North Korea. Williams states that “the lowest-risk material includes movies from countries such as China, India, and Russia. These pose a low threat as their story lines are rarely political and the countries are not judged to be hostile to North Korea […] the riskiest content includes anything that is anti-regime, religious, explores or attacks the Kim family, and all pornography.”
The regime has recently intensified measures to restrict and punish the consumption of outside information. In December 2020, the regime passed a law designed to reject “reactionary ideology and culture.” This involved harsher punishments for “offenders” such as fines or even sentences in prison camps for distributing or consuming foreign media. The new anti-reactionary law is particularly notable for its application of the death penalty, unlike other existing laws, demonstrating how the regime’s policy has escalated in response to the influx of foreign media. In May 2022, an individual was accused by authorities of distributing South Korean media and executed. Similarly, in April 2023, a military officer was executed in public in Pyongyang for distributing information about world news.
In tandem with these illegal activities is the high prevalence of bribes. Williams notes that “local officials are most likely to accept bribes, especially when the alleged crimes involve relatively common illicit content such as Chinese television dramas,” although things become more complicated if provincial or national level officers get involved and if the content is of a seriously illegal background. Similarly, it is common for illegal private business owners to make connections with people within the military and bribe them to use officially registered vehicles for their business.
On the other hand, there is some debate as to whether bribery can be considered ordinary. While it is certainly widespread, the typical cost of bribes raises the question of who can afford to pay them. For example, one North Korean escapee notes that a bribe should be at least $2 to $3, but it would be much better to offer between $10 and $50. This is much higher than the 40-50 U.S. cents that the average worker earns per month. Another North Korean says that “if you’re not rich then it’s really hard for you to even dare to watch” illegal content, as the bribe to avoid punishment would be too high.
Life in Pyongyang as a "Lesser Elite"
Robert Collins’ Pyongyang Republic offers great insight to life in the capital city. One of the groups he discusses are the "lesser elite" of North Korea. These individuals experience neither the luxury of the top elite nor the poverty that is common in the northern provinces. From this perspective, the lesser elite can be considered “ordinary” in a broader sense.
The lesser elite are usually Party members who hold low positions in government, though they may also work at factories or in agriculture. While these positions are poorly renumerated, it is still much more wealth than can be observed in the rural areas of North Korea. Collins highlights that the lesser elite still feel “fortunate” to live in Pyongyang, and residency here is “paramount to their calculus of survival, because of access to some food, healthcare, and higher quality education for their children.” Life can still be difficult for these people, and the difference between the lesser elite and the upper elite is considerable.
Despite the relative wealth that the lesser elite experience in Pyongyang, they also face challenges. Access to food can be problematic. As Collins explains, “even in Pyongyang, there is not enough food for every resident,” and they do not have steady running water, electricity, or heating. When Dong-hyun Lee was living in Pyongyang, he found a woman and a child outside the entrance of his home who had died of hunger. After reporting the deaths, he was shocked by how blasé the response from the authorities was. He also had already found out that morning that there had been multiple reports of dead people on the street. Securing food is not always an easy task, even for the relatively wealthy in Pyongyang.
Housing is another area where the lesser elite experience some challenges. While their housing is often better than housing in rural areas, it is still by no means particularly good. Housing is in short supply in Pyongyang, and families live in two-room apartments. Those who have just married may wait years before they have their own apartment. The buildings that the lesser elite live in are often poorly constructed and older. Access to higher quality housing is based on one's songbun, as is the case with all aspects of life in North Korea.
There are unique features to ordinary life in Pyongyang as a lesser elite. For example, residents are required to take part in political events, such as observing military parades and carrying out chores like street cleaning. This takes place far more frequently than in the provinces. Additionally, political control and surveillance is much stronger in Pyongyang, making it harder for those in the city to engage in illicit market activity or consume foreign media. Interestingly, when purchasing things in Pyongyang, very rarely is the price asked for in the local currency. The upper elite will ask for the price in U.S. dollars, while those at the middle level will request the price in Chinese currency. Only the poor in Pyongyang ask for prices in North Korean won.
Identifying what is “ordinary” in North Korea is difficult, given the unusual nature of the Kim regime. Nevertheless, there are some themes and experiences that can be understood as “ordinary.” Ordinary life in North Korea is difficult, often characterized by hardship and lack of essentials. Lack of food and adequate housing, as well as extremely high levels of political coercion, constitute the central features of life in North Korea.
In these circumstances, there is still space to observe what may be considered “ordinary” parts of life in other countries, including finding time for family and relationships, for example. Activities that are outlawed by the regime, including the consumption of foreign media, are also a part of ordinary life in North Korea.
To improve the quality of life for ordinary North Koreas, there must be a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources, especially to the country’s rural areas. The kleptocratic nature of the Kim regime will, however, make this difficult. The international community must seek creative ways to ensure the North Korean people’s fundamental human rights, and to improve the human security situation for the ordinary people of North Korea.
Daniel McDowall is a Master of Global Affairs student at the University of Toronto with a concentration in global security issues and international diplomacy.
 Robert Collins, South Africa’s Apartheid and North Korea’s Songbun: Parallels in Crimes Against Humanity (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2021), 74.
 World Food Programme, DPR Korea Country Brief, December 2021. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000135453/download/?_ga=2.237313792.1492437778.1687791406-1580620096.1687791406.
 Marcus Noland, Sherman Robinson, and Tao Wang, “Famine in North Korea: Causes and Cures,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 49, no. 4 (2001): 743.
 Robert Collins, Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 66.
 Rita Bhatia, “Food Shortages and Nutrition in North Korea,” The Lancet 360 (2002): 27.
 Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 86–87.
 Ibid., 25. Young-mi Park was 65 years old at the time of the interview.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/HRC/25/CRP.1, February 7, 2014, 172–73.
 Jack Goodman and Alistair Coleman, “North Korea: Why Doesn’t it Have Enough Food This Year?,” BBC News, June 23, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/57524614.
 Ibid.; “North Korea’s Dire Food Shortage May Become More Acute,” The Economist, July 6, 2022. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2022/07/06/north-koreas-dire-food-shortage-may-become-more-acute.
 “North Koreans Tell BBC They are Stuck and Waiting to Die,” BBC News, June 15, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiviOdWDl9o.
 Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 95.
 Fahy, Marching Through Suffering, 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Changyong Choi, “‘Everyday Politics’ in North Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies 72, no. 3 (2013): 661.
 Martyn Williams, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019), 22.
 Robert Collins, North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019), 112.
 Ken Gause, Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), 17, 27.
 Ibid, 17–18, 26.
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 12.
 Hassig and Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea, 134.
 Fahy, Marching Through Suffering, 62.
 Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (London: McFarland and Company, 2007), 97.
 Ibid., 98.
 Hassig and Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea, 257.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 156.
 Ibid., 98.
 Fahy, Marching Through Suffering, 22.
 John Everard, Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea (Stanford: The Walter Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre, 2012), 4–5.
 Daniel Tudor, Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2017), 205.
 Ibid., 201–3.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 218.
 Ibid., 219.
 Choi, “‘Everyday Politics’ in North Korea,” 659.
 Ibid., 665.
 Fahy, Marching Through Suffering, 46.
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 8.
 Josh Smith, “North Korea Cracks Down on Foreign Media, Speaking Styles,” Reuters, January 19, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-media/north-korea-cracks-down-on-foreign-media-speaking-styles-idUSKBN29P0C4.
 Sang Yong Lee, “North Korea’s War Against Outside Information and Culture,” 38 North, May 25, 2023. https://www.38north.org/2023/05/north-koreas-war-against-outside-information-and-culture/.
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 6.
 Choi, “‘Everyday Politics’ in North Korea,” 659.
 Williams, Digital Trenches, 7.
 Collins, Pyongyang Republic, 33.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 37, 43.
 Fahy, Marching Through Suffering, 109.
 Collins, Pyongyang Republic, 59–60; Hassig and Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea, 128.
 Collins, Pyongyang Republic, 74.
 Ibid., 72.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.