“Back in North Korea, he was doing extremely well. He was a driver!” This is a remark I once heard from a North Korean defector. Indeed, it’s common knowledge in the DPRK that being a driver is a dream job.
In contrast, one should not expect a similar outburst of admiration when it is mentioned that somebody was a doctor in North Korea. Indeed, doctors, objects of near-universal respect in many developed societies, are seen in North Korea in a completely different light – as regular white collar workers, not much different from, say, a middle school teacher.
When it comes to the relative prestige of different jobs, there is a clearly visible and massive difference between North Korea and Western societies (and, for that matter, between North and South Korean societies).
That said, these dramatically different assumptions are based on the same inner logic. Like it or not, the prestige of any given job in most societies is largely determined by income, or, more broadly, the access to resources the job is likely to generate. To put things simply, jobs which make people rich and/or powerful are usually respected and coveted.
It’s common knowledge in the DPRK that being a driver is a dream job
When it comes to jobs seen as prestigious in North Korea, most belong to one of two groups. The prestige of the first group derives from the fact they allow their holder to have privileged access to various hard-to-get resources.
The prestige of the second group derives from the access they give their holders to foreign currency, and especially jobs where wages are, at least partially, paid in foreign currency.
Let’s start with the second group. Of course, at the top of the “dollar-earners” food chain are diplomats, spies, and foreign trade representatives, but these groups are small, and largely filled with people of the right family background – that is, the children of the privileged.
Such positions are beyond even the theoretical reach of 99.9% of North Koreans. They are, to all intents and purposes, inherited.
It’s more illustrative, however, to look at ways in which a fairly ordinary person (from the “top 25%” perhaps) could gain access to hard currency.
Hard currency has always had great purchasing power in North Korea, where shortages have historically been grave even by the dubious standards of the communist bloc. Now, with marketization slowly being accepted by authorities, the lure of hard currency has somewhat diminished – but only slightly. A glance at the North Korean exchange rate shows even a modest income of hard currency is superior to what is seen in North Korea as a reasonably good salary in domestic currency.
This lust for foreign currency is the reason, for example, why it is so prestigious to be sent as a worker overseas. In recent years, the international media never gets tired of re-telling horror stories about North Korean workers in Siberian forests, Arabian deserts and, sometimes, even Polish shipyards. These people are presented as victims, as “forced labor” or even “modern day slaves.”
Indeed, the North Korean workers overseas toil in extremely difficult conditions. Twelve-hour shifts are seen as the norm, days off are rare, and accidents are very frequent. However, this does not stop a large number of able-bodied North Korean males (females were not eligible until recently, but things are changing now) from dreaming of such a job. It’s telling that there’s no way to become a “slave” without paying a large bribe.
This lust for foreign currency is the reason, for example, why it is so prestigious to be sent as a worker overseas
A trip to Russia is likely to cost the aspirant some $400, while a trip to the Middle East is even more expensive. Apart from the ability and willingness to pay bribes, candidates for unskilled work overseas should have a perfect political background, and, in most cases, should be members of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, that is, by default, a part of the top 25% of North Korea’s society.
The reason for this is simple: a trip overseas might be dangerous, but it often makes the person in question rich. As of this moment, after a standard-long 3-year work trip to Russia, a worker brings home $3-5,000. That’s enough to purchase a small shop or establish a small business which will ensure the security of the worker’s family for years to come.
This same logic is applicable to sailors allowed to go overseas. Conditions on North Korean ships are not much better than the conditions North Korean workers face in Siberia or the Middle East, but, in contrast, sailors are issued a small allowance in hard currency. On top of this, they can make use of the large difference in retail prices between North Korea and the outside world.
Inside North Korea, sailors cheaply purchase items which have a good chance of being sold overseas. Then while overseas, they buy things which will command a good price on the North Korean market – mostly any and all kinds of consumer goods.
North Korean sailors have always been extremely knowledgeable about prices in different ports of call. When they go to China, they take medical herbs as well as seafood delicacies which command a good resale price there, and bring back garments and consumer electronics, among other things.
Once again, there is fierce competition for the seemingly humble sailors’ jobs: bribes are common, and a good political background is an unavoidable necessity.
The first group of prestigious occupations (mentioned above) are those jobs whose holders gain access to all kinds of hard-to-get consumer goods. Above all others, this is epitomized in the job of a sales clerk. While in modern capitalist societies most sales clerks tend to be humble, poorly paid, semi-skilled laborers, this is not the case in North Korea: there they are elite jobs.
North Korea is changing now, and one can expect that the prestige associated with different jobs will change as well
The power of sales clerks’ reached its pinnacle during the heyday of the Public Distribution System (the PDS) back in the 1960s and 1970s. When merchandise was delivered to a shop, a sales clerk could always “repossess” a few items and then resell them at inflated prices to friends, relatives and useful contacts.
In many cases, socks and cans of imported Chinese fruit compote were not actually sold, but rather were swapped for favors. A sales clerk, or better yet, a manager in a state-run shop, would have little problem, say, placing a recently-drafted nephew into a good military unit, or, perhaps, arranging party membership for a family member.
It was generally accepted that managers often turned a blind eye to the odd bit of theft, as long as it was done discreetly. Clerks could be inventive – manipulating weight scales was one of the many tricks employed to divert merchandise and marginally undersell customers on their official quotas and rations.
Given the partial transition of the North Korean economy to a market economy, shortages have largely disappeared, causing a hit to the power prestige of sales clerks.
The popularity of being a driver (mentioned above) is also related to the ability to make extra cash. For decades, North Korea implemented a strict control of population movement, and it was difficult for the average Korean to leave his/her city or province of residence.
Any trip, therefore, required substantial paperwork and perhaps the odd bit of bribery. This controlling of movement was not a problem for most drivers, who could easily travel across the country.
On top of that, a driver obviously has access to a vehicle, and vehicles are rare in the countryside. This access affords him (never her: until recently females would normally be denied a driving license) a lot of opportunities to benefit from profitable sales of merchandise in a different area. The great price differentials which existed – and to some extent still exist – between different parts of North Korea make such operations remarkably profitable.
The popularity of being a driver (mentioned above) is also related to the ability to make extra cash
On top of that, a driver always has the opportunity of transporting fee-paying passengers – a substantial source of income.
If anything, the growth of markets in the last two decades has been good for North Korean drivers. There are many more people travelling between different parts of the country, and there is much more merchandise requiring transport.
Even the emergence of professional – largely private – trucking services has barely changed the situation. Hence, a driver remains a respected professional in North Korea.
North Korea is changing now, and one can expect that the prestige associated with different jobs will change as well – arguably, it will become more similar to what the inhabitants of the developed West consider “the norm.” Until that day comes however, it’s an odd day in North Korea when a mere doctor feels superior to a privileged driver.
Edited by Alessandro Ford and Oliver Hotham
“Back in North Korea, he was doing extremely well. He was a driver!” This is a remark I once heard from a North Korean defector. Indeed, it’s common knowledge in the DPRK that being a driver is a dream job.In contrast, one should not expect a similar outburst of admiration when it is mentioned that somebody was a doctor in North Korea. Indeed, doctors, objects of near-universal respect
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.