Having wrapped up four years working in North Korea for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in October last year, Thomas Fisler has developed an insight into the country quite unlike many of the foreigners who have visited.
His post was lengthy by expat standards – many in the North only work there for a two-year stint – and his job as Director of Cooperation for the SDC regularly brought him to the most far-flung parts of the country, areas that few diplomats working in the country get to visit.
In an interview with NK News in December, Fisler had plenty to share about the differences he saw between city and countryside, the impact of sanctions, the politics of humanitarian aid, and on developments in the economy – an area that has left many observers scratching their heads for years.
From the capital to the countryside, Fisler notably said he saw citizens everywhere engaged in “income generating activity” to supplement rations and official salaries. As a result, he said, locals can afford everything from high-end fridges in Pyongyang to solar panels in rural towns and villages.
But “there is still a great humanitarian need in rural areas” and current international aid levels work out to just $2 per citizen per year: well short of what Fisler thinks the government would ever need to adequately provide for citizens there, even without the nuclear weapons program.
Overall, though, Fisler found his time in North Korea difficult to make sense of.
Compared to other developing countries he worked in – Myanmar and parts of Africa – Fisler said four years in-country left him with many unanswered questions about just how things work in North Korea.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and readability
NK News: How was life in North Korea as an expat?
Thomas Fisler: Well, about a quarter or a third of my time would be traveling to projects, certainly less in winter time because it is quite tough to travel to rural areas then, and the rest would be mostly office work.
Partly also attending some of the functions, attending coordination meetings amongst the agencies, and also obtaining and providing information on the humanitarian situation.
NK News: And in terms of sort of the free time you had, were there any limitations on what you could do while living there?
Thomas Fisler: Obviously, there isn’t much to do in Pyongyang – it is not a place where you can say ‘let’s go out to watch a movie’ or anything of the sort.
But now, with access to the internet – which we all have as foreigners – you have good means to get information through the internet. The quality of the internet is such that it allows also one to use Skype and WhatsApp, so staying in touch with families and friends is possible, which I think is an important aspect.
Then there is satellite TV – I even had a South Korean satellite dish with over 100 channels on it, so no problem there. And then you can do a bit of sports, you can go bicycling, you can do some swimming, tennis, etc.
NK News: You said a South Korean satellite? What do you mean?
Thomas Fisler: Yes, I have forgotten the name of it, but it was just a South Korean satellite dish or service. So through China, we get those dishes and we get a decoder, and the subscription is being paid through some dealer in Dandong I think.
“I even had a South Korean satellite dish with over 100 channels on it”
You can use one dish and multiple decoders, but one decoder for each TV. They are not so many: I think there are six or seven people who have that dish. It is not costly – $500 and about $100/200 a year in subscription.
It includes South Korean TV – not just one channel, over a hundred – but everything. And of course I don’t watch South Korean channels – I don’t understand it – but there are 10/15 sports channels and there is the BBC, there is CNN International, CNN U.S. – it is all on there.
NK News: In terms of like moving around the city, I remember reading years ago in John Everard’s book “Only Beautiful, Please” that there was a limit of 30km for moving around town…
Thomas Fisler: Basically, we can travel everywhere in Pyongyang we want. However, there are certain places which are a no-go even to North Koreans and they are clearly marked with a barrier, especially those areas which are for the army or for the Party.
They will tell you if you drive into a place where you are not supposed to go, they will make you turn around immediately, of course. But it is so obvious that you wouldn’t cross that barrier.
Other than that, there is a guidebook for diplomatic personnel which clearly states where you are allowed to drive without anyone joining you. It includes trips up to Wonsan, to the Masikryong Ski Resort, Nampo, so no problem.
NK News: And what were relations normally like between foreigners and the locals?
Thomas Fisler: I think it is a good relation. It is good but it is very difficult to build a very close relationship. The understanding and the perception of life is very different.
And it is not easy to have Koreans invited to your house for a dinner or something. While it is possible, it will be two/three/four people together. One person alone, it is not possible.
NK News: Moving on a little bit to talk about the actual countryside situation, what would you say is the biggest difference in daily life for someone in Pyongyang versus one of these small towns in the northeast?
Thomas Fisler: I think it is the way that people make their living. In the rural areas, their dependency on farming is substantial, whereas people in Pyongyang still get their rations from the public distribution system (PDS) and have all the means of small businesses or trade to get additional income to buy things.
In the rural areas, because they don’t travel very much or very far, they are very limited in terms of access to markets to buy things. So they principally produce all they have to use themselves. I think that’s the biggest difference.
NK News: What’s the food supply situation like in Pyongyang now?
Thomas Fisler: My impression is that there is definitely sufficient food in Pyongyang for the people. I have not visibly seen people who would have an appearance which would conclude that they have insufficient food. The markets are also quite rich in the varieties.
NK News: After these four years, how would you characterize the general humanitarian situation at the moment?
Thomas Fisler: Definitely there is still a great humanitarian need in rural areas.
Clearly this is so and I think the publications by the UN agencies which state that 25% of children below five are still under- or malnourished is a correct figure in rural areas, definitely. The needs are great in terms of food in those areas.
“There is still a great humanitarian need in rural areas”
NK News: So one point that’s interesting is on markets, what do you know as being the difference between official and unofficial markets?
Thomas Fisler: There’s a huge existence of unofficial markets which are by now accepted and maybe will never be made formal or official, but in all formality accepted and existent. You see them every couple of blocks in Pyongyang – in between the blocks there are markets.
We have access to one, the big one (the Tongil Market) where foreigners can go, that’s a big market hall; everything is available there – food, appliances, clothes, shoes, whatever.
NK News: And in Tongil Market, how do you pay?
Thomas Fisler: We pay in Won which we can change there from Euros or dollars, there is an exchange counter. We pay in Won but it still turns out to be that in a way, we are not benefiting from any exchange rate differences.
I think currently it is roughly about ₩9,000 for a Euro, so we would pay, let’s say ₩20,000 for a kilo of apples from China, which then still turns out to be €2/3, so the price is all the same. (Editor’s note: the official exchange rate is approximately 120 Won per Euro).
NK News: And how do authorities explain the official exchange rates versus you having to use this ₩9,000 per Euro system?
Thomas Fisler: No one uses the official exchange rate. The official exchange rate is relevant to what is labeled in the supermarket, so there they have the daily rates.
So if something is labeled let’s say ₩100, together with the official exchange rate, it’s $1 roughly.
It’s just a hypothetical mathematical exercise which still reflects the real value. So if I buy a packet of fruit juice produced in let’s say Germany, I will still pay €3 either way.
NK News: Do the North Koreans ever remark on this dual exchange rate system?
Thomas Fisler: Apparently, they don’t benefit from the two exchange rates either. Where we can buy things with Won, the price will be such that it still turns out to be the same level of price (regardless of which exchange rate system you use).
“No one benefits from… there being a seventy times difference in exchange rate”
Apparently there is one exception that’s interesting. You see many people with two or three mobile phones because people can buy the initial monthly subscription at ₩3,000 and if you have two phones, that carries almost through the month, I think. And ₩3,000 is kind of nothing.
But if North Koreans use the taxis, they either pay in euro or dollar or Won, so if the trip costs $3, they would still pay ₩25,000 if they give it in Won.
But there is practically no one that benefits from that sort of hypothetical fact of there being a seventy times difference in exchange rate.
NK News: So we’ve had a fuel price increase recently in North Korea, but from our understanding the taxis and the buses all stayed at the same price. How could that happen?
Thomas Fisler: I assume the taxis have access to fuel coupons at a different price to what we foreigners pay at the petrol station. That must be the reason.
The other factor is that there are no private vehicles, basically. There are a handful maybe, but basically none.
The government vehicles partly also have access to different fuel coupon prices, so that must be a reason. And that’s an interesting aspect.
Anywhere else in the world, if you raise the price by 80% or 100% on fuel, there would be huge inflation to follow the price hike. In Myanmar, that was the starting point of the Saffron revolution at that time. But in North Korea, it makes no difference.
NK News: And what about the prices for rice and other commodities? Have you seen any change?
Thomas Fisler: My take is that there is no inflation. A kilo of rice is still hovering around ₩8,000 per kilo (plus or minus) and the exchange rate also is very stable.
“Anywhere else in the world, if you raise the price by 80% or 100% on fuel, there would be huge inflation to follow…”
So neither the fuel price hike nor the recent sanctions triggered any inflation in the country. So the statement from Trump that there are ‘big queues of cars’ waiting for gas is totally fake news. It is just not true.
NK News: Official salaries in North Korea are said to be around $30-40 per month. Where, then, does all the cash come from inside the DPRK?
Thomas Fisler: I think everyone is engaged in some kind of income generating activity, I would call it.
I have always been amazed to see people opening their wallets and there being a couple of 100 dollar or 100 Euro bills in their wallets. I see that from people who otherwise do not look very wealthy.
Of course, you also see the very wealthy people who go to the spa, etc: they are at a different level.
An interesting example that reflects financial capabilities can be judged from the number of supermarkets or markets with luxury goods.
So if I would estimate let me say a shopping mall, as they would call it, selling something like fridges. Well, you can walk into any of those malls and there would be 50/60 fridges available to buy at prices like in China, or if they are German products, like in Germany.
I think there must be at least 20 or so of these kinds of shops around Pyongyang, so at any given moment you would have 1000 fridges ready to be sold on the market.
And when you sort of multiply that into the number of consumers, it can give you an estimate on how the situation is.
They – the people – are not living on the PDS rations only in Pyongyang anymore, definitely not. It is not possible.
“At any given moment you would have 1000 fridges ready to be sold on the market”
NK News: Is the PDS still functioning in Pyongyang…?
Thomas Fisler: Yes, yes. I would assume if one family collects more rice then they need, then it is being traded for something else.
Also what I often heard is that the quality of PDS differs very much. You don’t know what you get – you get rice, you get rice and maize mixed, you get potatoes, you get barley…. What you get is very inconsistent.
NK News: How would you compare DPRK to other countries you worked around the world?
Thomas Fisler: That is a very difficult comparison to make. Basically you can’t compare a rural area in the DPRK with, let me say, a rural area in the south of India, or places like that.
People basically live in North Korea on subsistence. And that is very much the case.
I was always impressed or amazed by the total absence of trade and transport within the DPRK.
In other countries, other rural areas – giving an example in Africa – you will always have tons of buses with people moving from A to B, goods for markets moving from A to B, from the village to the next city or something like that.
That is not visible and therefore comparatively non-existent in the DPRK. That, for me, is the interesting thing.
I recall a trip following the coastline up in the North, that road along the coast and every three/five kilometers you’d have a village.
For two hours, I saw one truck with a bit of timber for construction loaded on it, and nothing else, which indicates how little goods are being exchanged and moved across the regions of the country.
NK News: The people therefore in those regions, how would they be getting by? Have they been left to figure things out?
Thomas Fisler: I think by and large, yes. They are very skilled in having their coping mechanisms based on the fact that there is not much to be received from the government. It is unfortunate, but that’s how it is.
NK News: What would you say was the most surprising aspect of life in North Korea for you?
Thomas Fisler: It is the absolute level of loyalty of the people towards the government. They believe in the system.
They are never loyal to foreigner residents, which then results in us never really being 100% sure whether we know the facts and get to the truth.
So, how much did I see behind the curtain and how many more curtains are yet to be opened? That is the most difficult thing as a foreigner.
There is no one sort of saying ‘hold on, now I will tell you how it really is’.
I have been in Myanmar before under the old regime. There you had your own staff, your local employees, and a certain situation in a community. You have policing, you are being guided – back then we were also watched and surveilled – but the moment you are in the back of the car, your own local staff tell you ‘I will explain why, what, how, this, that and so on’ – and you get a full picture of things.
That is impossible in North Korea. The censorship of what they allow us to see or understand is huge.
NK News: There are voices who argue that DPRK is a special case and there shouldn’t be any humanitarian aid because the government exercises so much censorship, so much control of information, so many human rights abuses, etc. With the government spending money on its nuclear and missile programs but unable to feed its people, why should donors therefore help?
Thomas Fisler: Just to get a few figures right; currently, the total humanitarian aid to DPRK is in the range of $45-50, maybe USD$60 million per year. That on its own makes practically no difference. This is a per capita of $2 per annum, which is nothing as an average. But when it’s targeted we can make a difference with humanitarian assistance.
I think that the presence of the agencies and the ability to monitor or implement and monitor our work guarantees that the assistance reaches those who need it most. And I truly can conclude after four years that this is the case.
So this sort of simplistic way of saying we are funding aid whereas the government totally ignores its people and uses its funds for the nuclear program and so on is too simplified as an argument.
The needs in this country are way beyond what the government is spending on their defense. The external trade is estimated currently between USD$3-6 billion a year, depending on who makes the estimate, 80-90% being trade with China. Maybe it has gone down in 2017, but it must be in the range of USD$5 billion.
However, the annual defense budget of South Korea stands at USD$35 billion. Just the defense budget of South Korea is seven times bigger than the entire annual trade of North Korea.
Or to give another figure which I just happen to know of, the daily external trade of Switzerland is USD$2 billion a day compared to USD$5 billion of yearly trade of the DPRK. This needs to be kept in mind.
“Currently, the total humanitarian aid to DPRK is in the range of $45-50, maybe USD$60 million per year. That on its own makes practically no difference. This is a per capita of $2 per annum”
NK News: But if North Korean people were left to fend for themselves, then wouldn’t their government have to become more accountable to its most needy?
Thomas Fisler: I think on an operational level, the government does take care of its people to the extent the government is able to take care. They are simply not able to do much more.
If you take the entire spending on the nuclear program and put that into the economy of the country that it would – I believe it would still – by far – be insufficient to satisfy the basic needs of these 25 million people.
I don’t know the current figures on the nuclear program, I think it is anyone’s guess, but it can’t be more than a couple of a hundred million at the very most. It is certainly way less than one billion. It must be. My take is maybe 200 million.
There are one million soldiers roughly – those are working soldiers. But in North Korea they sustain themselves. They are at zero cost in that sense.
So you can’t say the government has to spend on or take care of one million soldiers as well. They build infrastructure, they work – that is the work force. That is part of the economy.
NK News: So you think only 200 million on the nuclear, and not so much on military as some analysts expect?
Thomas Fisler: Again, that is my personal guess. How do I know such figures? No one in Pyongyang would be able to give you those figures.
Anyhow, these figures are so difficult to estimate.
You can’t say that the budget for the education sector or the health sector is XYZ because how do you take the salaries of this staff into consideration? You don’t. They are basically paid with the PDS.
I know there are some think tanks which make estimates on that but they are very vague and very difficult to make.
Again, I think what is more relevant and interesting is my take on the cash flow of a Pyongyang family by how much they can spend in terms of euro or dollar a month. I think that’s an interesting figure and it represents something about the wealth of the people. And the same would apply in the rural areas.
Let me give you an example. I have seen things like we stop on the road and some young man walks up and wants to sell a wild Ginseng root (Insam). Because wild Ginseng are the best of the best, it can have a value of $300 in Pyongyang. But that young man cannot travel to Pyongyang, so he sells it at $100 and whoever buys it along the road carries it then to Pyongyang and sells it for two or three times the price. So that young man or his family or whatever has buying power of $100 at that moment.
And you see, again I would say 60% of the households in those areas or villages have a solar panel for electricity. Such an installation at a minimum costs $150 up to maybe $300/400 depending on the size, so people must be having access to cash to buy something for $150.
Okay, you don’t buy a solar panel every month – but you have a one-time solar panel, then you have a mobile phone which is also $100 and so on.
NK News: On the big picture issue of international relations with North Korea, what do you think is missing as far as diplomatic relations with DPRK go?
Thomas Fisler: I think basically cutting off any form of communication is counterproductive. I think it is at the core of diplomacy to maintain talks and exchange views and provide abilities for both sides to have access to an inside of the situation.
Again, both sides, which also means that people from the DPRK should be given means to travel abroad and see whatever they can see or what they want to see. And so cutting off those diplomatic channels is maybe the wrong way to go about it.
I think that any transformation, any change can only happen if people are better informed on what happens outside. And, on a very marginal level, it’s also a bit of our task – the international community living in the country – to provide the window to show what is out there.
“I think that any transformation, any change can only happen if people are better informed on what happens outside”
I think the more you push someone against the wall, the more desperate someone would take action with means which are maybe not even legal. Or to say if the sanctions are now getting to a level that they can’t breathe anymore, they will move onto illegal levels.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: T. Fisler
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