About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Howdy! Welcome back to Ask a North Korean, the feature where NK News readers like yourself can email in and ask our North Korean writers your questions.
Today’s question was given to us by Tara from Maryland, who asks: “Do the people of Pyongyang really know what it’s like outside of the city? Or are they so isolated that they don’t understand?”
Information in North Korea is heavily restricted, and so it can be difficult for people to educate themselves on what’s really going on in the outside world.
However, since Pyongyangites are likely to be more educated and ‘worldly’ compared to those from the provinces, does this mean they have a little bit more insight into goings-on outside of the country than other North Koreans?
Or, because they live just across the river from China, are those from the northern provinces more knowledgeable?
Tae-il Shim, from Ryanggang Province, North Korea, has given us his thoughts on the subject. Tae-il used to come into contact with various people from around the country when he was running his smuggling business, so he’s in a good position to compare those from the capital with those from outside.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
10% of North Korea’s 25 million people reside in Pyongyang. They are better informed about some foreign affairs, but not on others.
All the foreign embassies are located in the capital city and people who the Party dispatches to work overseas also frequent Pyongyang, possibly disseminating outside news with the locals.
So, in a sense, people in Pyongyang have many more sources of information compared to other parts of North Korea.
I would say that Pyongyang residents have some knowledge about living standards in Russia and China, but they are not well-informed on developed capitalist countries like South Korea, the U.S., and Japan.
And even if they do have a certain degree of knowledge, they’re reluctant to share it so as to avoid any potential trouble.
My acquaintances in Pyongyang, regardless of their socio-economic class, are mainly interested in making money. They shun any political discussion, lest they inadvertently commit an anti-state crime.
Though I made connections with a wide range of people from almost every region, including Pyongyang, through my smuggling business, I also limited my interactions with them to commercial transactions.
Due to the on-going high alert concerning the “wind of capitalism (자본주의의 바람),” engaging in small talk about South Korea with people you only half trust is best avoided.
Even though they’re relatively well educated and of a higher class than the rest of us, people in Pyongyang are thoroughly indoctrinated and fairly content with the status quo.
Indeed, unlike those outside Pyongyang, they receive monthly food rations including soy sauce, bean paste, cooking oil, eggs, meat, and confectionaries. On national holidays, students are provided with school uniforms and snacks as gifts or at an affordable price.
While other regions are pitch black at night, Pyongyang gets some electricity, albeit for a few hours a day.
People in the capital are pretty OK with the way things are, especially if they have no idea about how their quality of life could possibly improve beyond the standards of Pyongyang.
There are many PhD holders, professors, and those who visit foreign countries, but their sense of reality still falls short of those who live in the border areas, like Ryanggangdo, Chagang, and North Hamgyong provinces.
People from outside of Pyongyang, at least those in my hometown, are often more up-to-date on outside news.
20 out of 36 of the households in my village had someone who has left North Korea, whether they’re parents, children, or extended family members. And of course, the news that these people get into the country is more accurate and reliable than what Pyongyang residents get.
Families of defectors have a sense of solidarity among themselves and share confidential news with one another. Though they’re physically in North Korea, their fate is determined by their relative in the South, as that’s where their money is being sent from.
“Engaging in small talk about South Korea with people you only half trust is best avoided”
There are quite a few news outlets in North Korea: Korea Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun, Korean Central Television, the Korean People’s Army Literature (a military magazine), and the Korean People’s Army (a military newspaper).
The Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security each possess a communication broadcasting service, and there is a telecommunications office in each province, city, and county.
Though on a smaller scale than the central Party mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun, each province runs a newspaper of their own.
But despite all this available media, they all mainly discuss issues that reinforce and justify the continuation of the Kim family’s hereditary succession of power.
They hardly cover any outside news. If they do, it’s about how the gang of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are attacking North Korea with economic sanctions, and how the government is creating an anti-U.S. front with countries like Syria and Iran.
There are cell phones that the government imports from overseas and sells to the people several times higher than the original price. The radiofrequency is fixed, internet access and international calls are disabled.
People who do make international calls use cell phones brought in from China, with prices ranging between 1,500~3,500 RMB, depending on how well the phone has been programmed to be undetectable. You shouldn’t make phone calls lasting more than 1~5 minutes when using an outdated cheap phone.
Expensive phones can do video calls and send text messages, so no wonder they’re of such high value.
Agents of the Ministry of State Security usually have very expensive and high-quality cell phones, which they got by confiscating them from regular people who got caught using them. They’ll keep the good ones for themselves and hand in the cheap old ones.
Along with the border guards, they run an anti-state money-making business under the pretext of cracking down on anti-state crimes and espionage.
If caught with an illicit cell phone, you can bribe your way out of trouble for the price of 10,000 RMB — until 2017, this used to be 3,000~5,000 RMB, but it went up to 10,000 RMB last year.
Pay the bribe and that investigation paper will be shredded or burned up for you.
“People in Pyongyang are thoroughly indoctrinated and fairly content with the status quo”
Despite the various restraints, South Korean trends continue to infiltrate society. In almost all regions, many people are dressing like their Southern brethren, and some even speak with a South Korean accent.
There were times when the mere utterance of words like ‘Hankuk‘ (‘Korea’ in South Korean Korean), the U.S., and Japan would get you sent to a reformatory, and so-called South Korean-style outfits were torn off on the spot. Not so much anymore.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio