Life In North Korea
One of a series of drawings of public executions created by North Korean refugee child showing the stages and manner of public execution in North Korea. Factual accuracy was later confirmed by news reports and a video taken and smuggled from North Korea to Japan. Picture credit: North Korea Genocide Exhibit
As one of the only remaining closed societies in the world, North Korea has garnered global attention to what is sealed off within its borders. Despite the ongoing food crisis that has lasted for two decades and the whimsical leadership under the 'Kim' family, life manages to go on in Hermit Kingdom.
An ordinary North Korean's working life is almost completely predetermined by his 'Songbun', a loyalty rating system initiated during the Kim Il-sung years which included many elaborate layers of background checks to classify all citizens by political reliability. The system results in three broad classes - the core class, the wavering class and the hostile class. People with good Songbun are more likely to be accepted prestigious careers like party, military and academic placement. A person born into hostile class is doomed to be a peasant for life. Chronic food shortages have led to development of massive black market and barter trading among ordinary citizens. Rice and coal are among some of the popular goods in high demand and circulation. Even doctors would treat patients for food or commodity in return. People in countryside and remote areas would pick almost anything edible like wild grasses, weeds and stems to supplement their meal and create the illusion of vegetables.
On a more upbeat note, while peripheral cities had stagnated, quality of life in Pyongyang has progressed well in recent years. Students in Pyongyang University can enjoy massage from water jets, people can be seen dancing to local music in the park, children can be seen engaged in sporting activities like rollerblading and basketball . I was surprised, albeit sceptical when I read about one author's account of people in Pyongyang: Many young North Koreans are now pleasantly optimistic -participating registering for business and entrepreneurship courses in hope of a brighter, more open, future. Propaganda or not, I hope they are right.
Young boys play basketball at a park in Pyongyang. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is known to be an passionate basketball fan. Picture credit: David Guttenfelder
Territories & Borders
Winter crossing by North Korean defectors across the border into China. The signboard reads: No Entry. Picture credit: Julian Howley
The Tumen river is a 521km long river that serves as part of the boundary between Russia, China and North Korea. The river is a popular method for illegal crossings into China by North Korean defectors. Its shallow and narrow feature makes it more conducive for human crossing compared to other places. The river also freezes in winter allowing for dry crossings. For the fortunate, crossing this border represented a passage to freedom and opportunity. However, it could also mean a one-way ticket to the concentration camp, or death, if one were caught by government patrols from either side. The crossing into China is the favoured destination for two reasons: First, the border patrol is considerably less dense compared to Russia. Second, there is better cultural similarity due to decent number of Korean speaking people living near the Chinese borderlands. As of 2015, tens of thousands of defectors have crossed the North Korea-China border seeking asylum.
Standing at the...