Even the Dogs in China Had More Food Than Us

What rumors did you hear about the "outside world" that turned out to be true or false when you lived in North Korea? Are there any things you miss about your life there?
December 17th, 2012

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Paul asks:

What rumors did you hear about the “outside world” that turned out to be true or false when living in North Korea? Are there any things you miss about your life there?

There were lots of rumors about the outside world when I lived in North Korea, usually focused on how much richer the rest of the world was compared to us. Nobody knew where these rumors started, but they always left us curious and wanting to find out more.

With China being the closest neighbor, most of the rumors I heard about the outside world revolved around how much better life was there. It was common to hear things like, “China is so rich that you can’t even compare it with North Korea”, or “Chinese people own two cars per household and all live in two-story houses”.  Obviously it’s not common to own a car in the DPRK, so hearing these kind of things was always intriguing for people.

We also knew that Chinese people also had food and clothes which would have been unimaginable for most North Koreans. There was one rumor which was especially crazy, that,”Chinese dogs sometimes refuse to eat because they are so full”. But these stories weren’t just based on rumor, because many of us knew people who had gone to work in China for a few months and come back with enough money to live like a king in North Korea for years.

Not everything was good though. We heard some pretty scary rumors about China, too. One was about a town called In-Dwejii (인돼지 / Human Pig) where the Chinese were rumored to be growing human beings in a pigpen – just like animals. People said you’d be sent to that town if you accidentally crossed the border, and if you did go there you’d never come back. I’m not sure where these stories came from but I guess they weren’t enough to stop a lot of people from crossing the border to China, regardless.

Of course, rumors also swirled about prosperity in South Korea, too. There was a saying that South Korea was much, much cleaner than China. People would say “When you travel three days on the Chinese train, your socks get so dirty. But even after spending a week on a South Korean train, your socks stay really clean”.

These rumors about the outside world weren’t things you could gossip about freely with friends. That’s because if you said something wrong about the outside world, there was a chance you could be punished for promoting non-socialist influences to others. As a result, these rumors were only shared between close friends or family – people you could trust. And this being the case, it always blew me that there were so many rumors to be heard about the outside world.

With all the stories I’d heard, it was easy to think that life would be full of luxurious comfort as soon as I left North Korea. But after crossing the border for the first time, the reality of China became apparent and things appeared very different to what I’d imagined. However, it was safe to say that the Chinese did have a richer life than in North Korea.

The most impressive part about arriving in China for me was how bright the city was at night and how people could watch TV 24 hours a day.  In North Korea, we had a serious lack of electricity and I could only watch TV on weekends or holidays. So words can’t describe how amazed I was by the fact that you could use electricity all day and night. And at the start, everyday day in China felt like a holiday because I was able to watch TV all of the time!

Another thing that really surprised me in leaving North Korea was was that in all of the  countries I went, you could say whatever you wanted. In contrast, back home we always had to use proper terms for talking about the government and our leader. Naturally, it would also be impossible to even think about criticizing them in public.

When I finally got to South Korea, I was really shocked by the fact that you could talk about the President without using his formal title – and even talk badly of him openly!  This was all very new to me. You see, when I arrived in China I actually had an argument with a local friend who was talking about Kim Jong Il without using his formal title. For me this was so shocking that I insisted he must always use Kim Jong Il’s official title when talking about our “Dear Leader”. He just laughed at me!

There were many difference between the rumors I heard in North Korea and the reality of life outside. Of course, there are also many poor people in South Korea and China and it so it was incorrect to think that that everybody would be enjoying a luxury life there. So in many areas, things were more distant than what I imagined.

Sometimes I miss North Korea. My memory of my hometown and family bothers me a lot. The first thing in my mind is always my parents and my lovely home. Especially during holidays or birthdays I feel a part of my heart is empty from missing my family as much as I do. I guess people call this homesickness. I just wish I could spend a good day and share good news with my lovely family.

When I see my friends in South Korea, I miss my friends back in North Korea and all my great memories. As such, I do my best to keep the memories of my hometown fresh in my mind to try so I can be satisfied with my current life in South Korea.

Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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About the Author

Jae Young Kim

Join the discussion

  • T

    I love reading these posts, thank you for sharing your story with us! The part about missing your family and friends is very touching, but it raised several questions in me. How come they didn’t accompany you? And how did you manage to leave North Korea? Also, what made you take take the chance?