When the international media writes about North Korea, it habitually claims that the country is “run by a hereditary elite, who enjoy a life of privileges and luxury”. Well, to an extent, this statement is correct: few people would doubt that the North Korean elite is hereditary, and social mobility in the country is close to zero.
Nonetheless, these oft-repeated claims still need qualifications and caveats – especially when we are talking not about present day North Korea and its increasingly corrupt and market-oriented elite, but about their parents and grandparents who ran the country for nearly half a century during the Kim Il Sung era.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
While it is true that in those days of North Korea’s ‘national Stalinism’ the “top 0.1%” lived immeasurably better than the average North Korean, these people’s lives can hardly be described as luxurious or over-privileged if judged by the standards of the Western rich or even by the much more modest standards of the western middle class.
With some important exceptions, the ‘top 0.1%’ of the North Korean population under Kim Il Sung enjoyed a lifestyle roughly similar to that of mildly affluent middle-class people in modern developed nations.
Fortunately, my own contacts allow me to illustrate this: there are some elite North Korean families who I know quite well, and I will talk about one such family which, probably, was placed higher than other families I am personally aware of.
This family – let’s call them the ‘Paks’ – belong to the top North Korean elite. Its founding member, long dead by the 1980s, was once not merely a participant of the guerilla resistance in Manchuria, but a participant lucky to fight in the right detachment: one which was subordinated to a young field commander whose nom de guerre was Kim Il Sung.
As one would expect in North Korea, his descendants were handsomely rewarded with high positions in the country’s bureaucracy. For obvious reasons, I cannot disclose their positions, but it will suffice to say that they were among the top 1,000 officials in the country.
Many elites’ lives can hardly be described as luxurious or over-privileged if judged by the standards of the Western rich
So how did this family, whose younger generations at the time consisted of a father, a mother and two children, live in the 1970s and 1980s?
Like all families with such a background, they lived in a comfortable flat in a specially protected district on the Changwon Street. This district was (and still is) completely off-limits for average North Koreans, with an entrance guarded by the armed sentries. To invite outsiders as their guest, the Paks had to go through a complicated procedure. Essentially, such outside visits were decisively discouraged and, in many cases, banned.
Their flat, in a large multistoried building, had three bedrooms and one large living room, as well as kitchen, a toilet and bathroom (according to the Soviet tradition of interior planning, toilet and bathroom were separated). The elevator worked 24 hours a day and the hot and cold water supply was uninterrupted and reliable.
It might sound quite normal to many of our readers, but by the standards of the 1980s Pyongyang, it was indeed a luxury. The size of their flat itself was tremendous, some 130 square meters, many times more than the average family usually had at the time.
CARE PACKAGES FROM THE STATE
Due to their position, they were also considered “targets of two daily distributions”. This enigmatic sounding expression, well known to many North Koreans, means that every two days the Paks received a special delivery of high-quality food and consumer goods.
Every second day, for example, every member of the family was issued three or four eggs and a certain amount of pork or chicken (they could even get some beef in special circumstances). In addition, adult males were issued good cigarettes and high-quality alcoholic beverages.
The Paks’ flat was well furnished and boasted a Japanese-made TV. Interestingly, the Hitachi piece had a Korean-script brand name attached to it: it was customary during that period when the very existence of foreign exports was not supposed to be admitted openly. They also had a VCR, a tape recorder, and a fridge: at the time almost unheard of in Pyongyang.
Due to their position, the family were also considered ‘targets of two daily distributions’
Remarkably, though, virtually none of the furniture and durables was, strictly speaking, property of the family, but it was rather part of the flat. It was understood that if misfortune struck and the head of the family lost his high-level job, the Paks would have to move to a different place if they were lucky, or might even be sent to a prison camp if they were exceptionally unlucky.
In either case, all these luxury items were expected to stay in the house and could not be taken away. Such things happened from time to time to their neighbors, so they – especially, a father, a prominent dignitary of the Kim regime – had to be alert all the time.
The family had a full-time housemaid who was on the payroll of the North Korean state security and combined the duties of a housemaid with those of a personal guard (and, presumably, a security police informer).
In practice this meant that the wife was free from cooking and other household chores. This was quite handy because like many, if not most, wives of high-level North Korean officials, she worked and usually came back from the office very late, around 8 pm. The father was not normally seen at home until 11 pm or even later.
The family also had a chauffeured car, a Mercedes 600. However, this car’s use was subjected to many regulations and the mother could not commute from her job using her husband’s car. Instead, she had to wait for a bus. Since buses were heavily packed at the evening rush hour, she deliberately departed from her office later than most of her colleagues – otherwise, being of small stature, she would be unable to squeeze herself into the overcrowded Pyongyang bus.
The Paks liked to travel. Overseas family travel could not be even thought about, but in regards to domestic travel, the position of Mr. Pak gave them a number of advantages.
The family had a full-time housemaid who was on the payroll of the North Korean state security
The Paks enjoyed trips to the seaside in Wonsan where they went a couple of times a year to enjoy the sea scenery and fresh seafood which would be available only to people of their position (in South Korea, this seafood can easily be bought by pretty much everybody with an average income).
They also could stay in vacation residences for the high officials and their families near the East Sea or in the mountain areas along the Chinese border. They especially loved to travel to Paektusan.
The long trip on unpaved roads was not that uncomfortable since in this case, like in the case of their travels to Wonsan, they could take Mr.Pak’s car and traveled in the comfort provided by German automakers.
Alternatively, they could – and sometimes did – purchase train tickets. As the family of a high official, they had a right to buy tickets in the sleeping compartments. These compartments, where only officials and military officers above certain rank could travel, were pretty similar to the sleeping compartments in the Soviet trains I myself used to occasionally take in my student years when I was the son of a single mother working class family in the USSR.
These compartments, where only officials and military officers above certain rank could travel, were pretty similar to the sleeping compartments in the Soviet trains I myself used to occasionally take in my student years when I was the son of a single mother working class family in the USSR.
So, here comes the question: can we describe such a lifestyle as luxurious? If we compare the life of the Paks with the life of ordinary North Koreans of the era, there is little doubt that it was indeed a life of privilege.
It is not incidental that North Korean government went to great lengths to cover and hide such lifestyles, and tried – disingenuously – to present officials as selfless and virtuous fighters living lives of austerity.
However, with a few exceptions, it was essentially the lifestyle that the majority of middle-class families nowadays enjoy in developed countries – including, of course, South Korea.
There were some peculiarities, like, say, the presence of a full-time maid which definitely would be seen as a luxury by middle-class households in Seoul or New York City. The Mercedes 600 is also a rather comfortable vehicle, well beyond the reach of anybody but a tiny minority even in rich countries.
On the other side, the food packages delivered to the Paks’ house twice a day would definitely fail to impress a housewife from a lower-than-average income family in present day Seoul.
Paks and their peers had very little consumer choice. And as one of my other contacts recalled, after every delivery, you could smell the same smell coming from all flats: all the families in the privileged apartment complexes were cooking the same dishes.
Finally, one should remember the difficulties the Mother Pak had while commuting to and from work: one would hardly expect a wife of a vice-minister or vice-president of a major company in Japan or France to sit at her office for an additional hour just to get into overcrowded public transportation.
It was essentially the lifestyle that the majority of middle-class families nowadays enjoy in developed countries
And, of course, one should remember the conditionality of all these advantages. These North Korean ‘top 0.1%’ would enjoy what they saw as a luxury, but almost none of the items they used was their property, and they understood perfectly well that virtually everything could be undone in minutes if things go wrong.
Admittedly, things are different now.
Under Kim Il Sung, official corruption was almost absent, even though it begun to appear in the 1980s. Instead of paying and accepting bribes, in those days powerful people exchanged services and concessions (as a matter of fact, the Paks were pretty sophisticated in such subtle exchanges).
Now things are different and the monthly incomes of the top apparatchiks have increased dramatically compared to the 1980s: largely due to the explosive growth of a ‘classical’, money-based corruption. Nonetheless, one can suspect that even now, the lifestyle of a truly successful North Korean official or black market operator is, at best similar, to the lifestyle of an American upper-middle-class family (think of a modestly successful New York lawyer).
These people are much richer than the majority, and the income inequality is growing fast in North Korea. Nonetheless, the country’s elite – with the possible exception of the Kim family itself – are no Gulf’s oil sheiks or Russia’s oligarchs.
Featured Image: Life in Pyongyang, North Korea by jamgly on 2011-08-10 10:58:45