Life Inside the North Korean Bubble

“It [North Korea] is a real country with real people, whose everyday concerns are often not so very different from our own…”                                                                                            -John Everard, UK Ambassador to DPRK (February 2006 to July 2008)

To the rest of the world, North Korea maintains a shroud of mystery—it is a country that is as peculiar as it is dangerous. Because of its self-proclaimed juche ideology, the country has been relatively inaccessible to the outside world. John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea was in a unique position to observe lives of the outer elite of Pyongyang (they are in between the wealthy inner elites and citizens living in the countryside).

So what is life like as “executives” in this obscure land?

Overall, “their lives would seem very dull to most Westerners.” They navigate the unreliable public transport in Pyongyang to get to work, where they spend the day “at a relaxed pace” yet doing tedious work. Personal relationships at work are highly valued, as it made for a comfortable environment and ensured there would be friends coming to their aid if they got into any trouble. Home life involved spending time with family and watching TV—particular of interest was the Sunday night half-hour international news (which was obviously carefully edited.)

In terms of food, albeit the “monotonous” diet—mostly rice, vegetables, and kimchi—they were able to sustain themselves. The moribund economy impacted families significantly, even for these “outer elites.” Showers were accessible but only with cold water—which can be grueling in harsh winters (it can fall to -20°C or -4°F in Pyongyang).

Family is highly valued—whether the nuclear family (no pun intended) or the extended. More well off family members are expected to take care of those who live in the impoverished countryside. This entails providing medicines and more often money.

An extremely censored society, North Korean leaders rely heavily on propaganda to control its citizens. So how effective is the effort of root out foreign influences? “Their reaction to the propaganda that was incessantly blared at them varied,” wrote Everard. The government’s anti-American campaign is strong, but most citizens don’t hate Americans. Some of the propaganda they believed—such as North Korea is battling a U.S.-led conspiracy to overthrow the regime.

Everard’s account provides an interesting and perhaps optimistic perspective on life inside North Korea; however, those who live beneath the top tier provide a stark contrast. Outside of the fortunate minority, life is arduous. Most North Koreans growing up were unaware of the predicament in the North Korean bubble, but life beyond the confines of the DPRK can be full of adversaries as well. (Watch a TED talk by a North Korean defector)


Failed States Symphony: اصدقاء (friends)


Besides Russia (Syria’s most powerful ally) and Iran, President Bashar al-Asaad remains close ties with a distant backer—North Korea. The alliance traces back to the early 1970s, when North Korea sent advisers and equipment to aid Syria’s sneak attack against Israel during the Yom Kippur War. After Syria and Egypt lost, Pyongyang managed to send a group of artisans to construct a commemorative museum in Cairo. Pyongyang’s motives abroad have shifted throughout the years—early on the regime was eager to spread its juche ideology, but slowly it is transitioning to selling weapons and equipment to salvage its moribund economy. Syria is the only Mediterranean country that has diplomatic relations with North Korea without formally recognizing South Korea.  

In 2007, Israel launched Operation Orchid against Syria—an air strike that destroyed an undeclared nuclear reactor believed to have been built by North Korea and funded by Iran. The alleged alliance involves controversial chemical weapons as well, which accounts for two of the four countries that possess chemical weapon stockpiles (The four being: U.S., Russia, Syria, and North Korea). In April, Turkey intercepted a North Korean shipment of arms, ammunition, and gas masks en route to Syria. However, most recently North Korea denied aiding the Syrian government in its fight against rebel forces.


On August 3rd, the day before President Rouhani’s swearing in, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and North Korean security officials agreed to continue their cooperation in nuclear and missile development. The agreement perhaps undermines the new president’s policy to improve relations with western nations, particularly continuing a nuclear program dialogue with the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany. While North Korean officials showed concern towards President Rouhani’s stance in regard to Western nations, Mohammad Ali Jafari (the head of IRGC) assured them that the IRGC is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rather than the President. 

In addition to close ties in the fields of nuclear and missile development, Iran also supply petroleum to North Korea (Read more about it here.)


Pyongyang and Cairo recently signed a 2013-2015 “Working Plan for Cultural Cooperation.” The agreement was reached between the Egyptian Embassy in Pyongyang, and a North Korean delegation within the Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Cooperation between the two traces back to the 1970s—where North Korea aided both Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kipper War. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was also a keen supporter of friendly relations with North Korea.

As the U.S. cut military assistance, Egypt could be looking elsewhere for military support—particularly in ballistic missile developments. The new cultural plan does not explicitly entail military cooperation, rather fields such as higher education, art, public health, youth, sports, and mass media. (Egyptian company Orascom owns 75% of North Korea’s 3G networks “Korylink.”)

North Korea maintains amicable relations with these “high-profile” states, particularly worth noting due to their tensed relations with the U.S. and the rest of the western world. Is there a potential trend emerging among weak states to amalgamate, even if distance is a factor?

Shots Fired

Early November, North Korea publicly executed around 80 people across seven cities—the first known mass scale public executions under Kim Jong-Un, only a few months after he ordered the execution of an ex-girlfriend for producing pornography—which was intended to remove any suspicions in regards to the first lady’s involvement.

In Wonsan, Kangwon Province (an eastern port), authorities gathered 10,000 civilians in the Shinpoong Sports Stadium and forced them to witness the execution of eight people. Covered with white hoods and restricted to poles, those executed were subjected to rapid machine gun fire, and their alleged accomplices and relatives were sent to prison camps. None of the deceased were charged with capital crimes—sedition, treason, terrorism—instead, they were charged with minor offenses like watching South Korean TV drama, involvement in prostitution or the distribution of pornography, and possession of the Bible.

While the regime is known for public executions to discourage any foreign influence and to intimidate its people, these series of executions were performed simultaneously over a weekend, across cities that were designated for foreign investment. The act implies perhaps a pre-emptive strategy by Pyongyang to deter any public unrest or “capitalistic zeal” prompted by the new economic prospects. (Read more about the newly designated economic zones here.) There was not an execution in Pyongyang, as Kim Jong-Un relies on the support of his small group of elites, as he continues to build luxurious facilities to earn their loyalty.

Calling All Brave Investors

Pyongyang recently designated 14 new economic zones, an indicator that North Korea is increasingly desperate to remedy its stagnated economy. North Korea envisions these zones to bring in about $70 million to $240 million each—perhaps a lofty goal.

The planned developmental zones will be on a smaller scale, compared to the Kaesong industrial complex North Korea co-operates with South Korea. Earlier in April, North Korea abruptly withdrew all of its workers from the complex as a retaliation against Foal Eagle, the annual joint military training between South Korea and the U.S. Operations at the complex resumed after a five-month hiatus, however the sudden withdrawal of workers created a distrust from foreign investors.

North Korea took measures to incentivize the investment prospect, including a law established in the economic zones that allows companies to freely exchange foreign currency and ensures the safety of workers; The corporate tax rate will remain relatively low at 14%, and investors have the right to use and develop land over 50 years.

The 14 zones are comprised of four economic developmental zones that consist of trade and tourism and other sectors, three industrial development zones, two zones each for agriculture, tourism, and export processing; Lastly, a high-tech development zone in Kaesong, on the border of South Korea.

What will these developmental zones potentially look like?

An industrial developmental zone in Wiwon, Jagang province, seeks to combine mineral resources processing, machinery manufacturing, and research on silk culture and freshwater fish farming. A tourism zone in Onsong, North Hamgyong province will accommodate a golf course, racetrack, swimming pool, and resorts.

Foreign companies are wary of the high costs of investment considering the current lack of infrastructure for development, along side the economic sanctions placed on North Korea due to its nuclear proliferation program. North Korea has failed in the past to attract investors to its special zone on Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa islands, yet Pyongyang is not deterred from pursuing its agenda—as evident in the announcement of these zones—and with a special zone in a sensitive military area near its border with China

To Try or Not to Try: Human Rights Edition

“There’s not a lot of interest in or knowledge about human rights issues in North Korea. The problems which are described in the evidence are known vaguely by the international community but there is not the engagement with them.”                                                 –Justice Michael Kirby

Australian judge Michael Kirby chairs the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, UN’s first human rights investigation into North Korea. Formed in March of this year, the inquiry consists of Justice Kirby, Marzuki Darusman (UN special rapporteur on North Korea), and Sonja Biserko of Serbia. So far, the panel interviewed witnesses in South Korea, Japan, and U.K.; the panel is hearing accounts from North Korean defectors living in the U.S. starting today. The final report will be submitted to the UN in March 2014.

North Korea is not a member nation that formed the ICC. However, the UN Security Council can request investigation into non-signatories. The ICC is also looking to extend its remit in order to try those who are responsible for human rights abuse in North Korea. Pyongyang dismissed the inquiry as a “political plot” to overturn its leadership and refused to provide an account or allow entry for the inquiry.

The inquiry arrived amidst the whirlwind that is the year 2013—nuclear bomb threats, potential missile attacks, revived nuclear reactor, petroleum sale from the Middle East, huge potential for cyber warfare. For human rights watch, the year 2013 marks the reversal of a steady increase trend in North Korean refugees since 1998. This is likely attributed to recently tightened border control and increased instances of refoulement—in 2011, there were a total of 2706 refugees, 1509 in 2012, and 1041 in the nine months of 2013. Disregarding the international law principle of non-refoulement, (where states have an obligation not to return asylum seekers or refugees to a place where their life or liberty would be at risk) China has denied access for North Korean refugees under the pretenses that they are “economic migrants.” Not surprisingly, China remains North Korea’s biggest backer, along with Syria and Belarus.

What are some particular witness accounts?

Kim Song Ju, a North Korean defector who spent time in a detention camp, remembered how the prison guards told them, “once you get to this prison you’re not human, you’re just like animals.” This is made evident as prisoners were made to crawl through a 20-inch-tall cell door, along with being starved and abused by the guards.

Women who were returned from abroad are routinely checked for pregnancy in case the father of the child is a foreigner. One mother was forced to drown her newborn in a bucket because the prison guards suspected the father was Chinese. The racial purity element is particularly resonant to atrocities affiliated with World War II. 

Human rights violations in North Korea are occurring everyday—perhaps it goes unnoticed and is comparatively “under the radar” to what is happening in Syria and Burma—but nonetheless it is strikingly real, and perhaps more people should recognize the irony in how North Korea declared Switzerland’s refusal to sell ski lifts “a serious human rights abuse.”

Caught Oil-handed

Earlier in the week, China detained a batch of Iranian petroleum shipment to North Korea. This particular shipment is part of an ongoing contract between North Korea and Iran to import about 500,000 tons of condensate (a light oil). The condensate was shipped on tankers registered to a third nation, and have been distributed throughout multiple occasions.

Chinese authorities stopped the shipment at its coast of the Yellow Sea, and the ships were subsequently towed to Dalian, Liaoning and Qingdao, Shandong. China recently asked North Korea to pay a two-million-dollar storage expense. The detainment is speculated to be China’s measure of remaining in relative control of its neighbor since North Korea became increasingly dependent on Iran for petroleum.

The North Korean-Iranian contract entails North Korea paying Tehran for the condensate, but the oil must first be sent to a Chinese state-run petroleum company. North Korea and Iran are both under U.N. sanctions due to their nuclear agenda, which made the two a match when North Korea sought to diversify its energy providers.

U.N. economic sanctions against North Korea do not include banning condensate and other petroleum products that are prevalent to daily living. However, after North Korea’s third nuclear test earlier this year, U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed additional sanctions—member nations were obligated to inspect cargo to North Korea if there were suspicions of banned goods.

In the past, China provided 80% of North Korea’s petroleum, predominantly through a pipeline that runs along the Yalu River and shipments. Since North Korea’s threats of attack this year, China put a ban on petroleum export shipments and the supply level of the pipeline was reduced to a third of what it previously was.  

The petroleum contract between North Korea and Iran is likely to be a part of a larger agenda, as North Korea looked to build new oil refineries, and urged Mongolia to invest in current ones.

I can’t help but wonder: what happens when failing states—states that are considered dangerous outliers—start banding together? 

Meet the Members of the Chorus



Kim Il-Sung

× Time in office: 1948 – 1994 (the duration equivalent of the end of Truman’s presidency to the middle of Clinton’s)

× Referred to as the “Eternal President of the Republic”

× Born during Japanese colonization; parents were anti-Japanese activists and the entire family immigrated to Manchuria (Kim Il-Sung actually spoke very little Korean)

× Heavily involved in Chinese anti-Japanese guerilla groups

× Joined the Communist Party of China in 1931

× Noticeable success in northern Chinese guerrilla groups aided him in becoming the leader of Korean guerrilla groups—that later trained with the Soviet Union (Kim Il-Sung became a Major in USSR’s Red Army and fought in WWII)

× Created the Korean People’s Army (KPA) with backing from Stalin

× Declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in September 9th, 1945 (considered the entire Korean peninsula as territory even though South Korea was founded later in 1948)

× Communist Party + Worker’s Party of North Korea = Worker’s Party of Korea

× Established the premises of his rule under the idea of juche, “self-reliance”

× Waged the Korean War (1950 – theoretically 1953) (Although China was an ally, there were tensions between the two, predominantly due to the fact that China funded the military escapade more and provided better equipment)

× Trivia: had a fear of traveling by plane


Kim Jong-Il

× Time in office: 1994 – 2011

× The oldest son of Kim Il-Sung

× Born in Vyatskoye, Khabarovsk Krai, Russia (returned to N. Korea at age four)

× After Kim Il-Sung’s death, it took Kim Jong-Il almost three years to consolidate power

× During the 1990s, the country was in economic downfall, experienced severe floods (due to poor land management), inability to import essential goods to sustain industries, exacerbated by having only 18% arable land and widespread famine (implemented a “military first” policy and heavily dependent on foreign food aid)

× Implemented the “sunshine policy” in attempts to ease relations with S. Korea—the policy entailed allowing South Korean companies to start projects in N. K.

× 1985 – 1993 part of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Powers, yet eventually refused to comply with conduct rules and eventually withdrew from the pact

× Signed the Agreed Framework with the U.S. in 1994

× Conducted various missile and nuclear tests (the latter in 2006 and 2009)

× Towards the end of his term, Kim Jong-Il was in bad health, despite the official reports from N.K. denying it. (Succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un)

× Trivia: liked basketball (former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented him a basketball signed by Michael Jordan)



Kim Jong-Un

× Time in office: 2011 – present

× The world’s youngest head of state

× He is speculated to have studied in Switzerland

× Competed with his elder half-brother Kim Jong-Nam for succession. (His brother fell out of favor in 2001 because he was caught using a fake passport when entering Japan to go to Tokyo Disneyland)

× Since 2009, Kim Jong-Un has been the de facto leader; referred to as “Brilliant Comrade,” and Kim Jung-Il made much effort in ensuring allegiance to his son.

× Officially part of a triumvirate—with Premier Pak Pong-Ju, and Parliament Chairman Kim Yong-Nam

× Ordered missile testing over Japan, issued threats of nuclear war that ignited regional and international tension, executed ex-girlfriend (among other human rights violations, much like his late father)

× Trivia: organized an all-girls pop music group called Moranbong Band

(Photo Source: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jung-Il, Kim Jong-Un)