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)


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