We all know by now just how different the life of a typical North Korean is from our own. While our country was built with the idea of freedom in mind, Kim Jong Un maintains his tight grip on his country with his ultra-elite regime. And under his rule, life in North Korea can seem terrifying and strange to us outsiders.
So what, exactly, does a typical day in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, look like? When it comes to routines and activities, some are stranger and more sinister than you can even imagine. And one morning ritual in particular gives us serious War of the Worlds vibes.
North Koreans start their day with food supplied to them by the state
Most North Koreans eat food provided to them by the state. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
It may be the largest and most sophisticated city in North Korea, but residents of Pyongyang still struggle with food scarcity like the rest of the country. Business Insider reports 70% of the country’s citizens get the majority of their food from the state distribution system. Their dishes are filled with rice, soybean paste, and other staple ingredients the country relied on during the famine.
Recent reports say the food scarcity has improved overall in North Korea, and in an attempt to be a more self-sufficient nation, grocery stores are stocking more goods made in their own country. Even so, it’s common to see most residents eating staples like rice for each meal.
They go to their jobs — and women make up most of the workforce
Woman make about 70% of the household income in a North Korean home. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Just like in Western nations, North Koreans in Pyongyang go off to work every weekday morning. But The Washington Post notes women are the ones who really drive the workforce.
Most of the men in the country work in state factories or serve in the military, while the women work in markets and make over 70% of the household income, Reuters reports. And these markets aren’t entirely legal, either — but they’re widely tolerated by the regime. As for the city, that’s where the majority of the white-collar jobs are located. Most businesses, however, are without modern technologies like computers and photocopiers due to money woes.
Their morning commute is a lot different than yours
The average North Korean person’s commute is probably a lot different than yours. | KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/GettyImages
As The Guardian reports, driving in Pyongyang is a lot different than what you may be used to in other cities. Some people drive to their jobs, but traffic isn’t much of a problem, as the streets are pretty empty. And owners of cars can be fined if their vehicle is dirty, if they leave the city without a travel certificate, or if they’re smoking while driving.
As for how others get to work, the city’s metro system is an option. And a photographer for CNN says when she visited the country, she noticed some of the subway stations come complete with chandeliers, pictures of Kim Jong Il, and marble pillars. She said the citizens seemed bombarded with propaganda even when just commuting on public transit.
No internet at work (or at home)
North Korean leader Kim Jong keeps his nation shrouded in secrecy. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
You can forget about checking your social media. While you probably have internet access at work, home, and even on the go, there are only about 1,000 known IP addresses in North Korea, according to CNN.com. Unless you have a high position in government, you most likely don’t have internet access at all.
North Korea has more of an expanded intranet simply called “Bright.” CNN also discovered the country only has about 5,500 sites, and people use it primarily for studying and accessing government agencies and information. The North Korean internet is all about disseminating information and not entertainment.
Getting your daily news could be a crime
The front pages of select Chinese newspapers, which North Koreans still sometimes access. | Peter Park/AFP/Getty Images
The NGO Freedom House, reports that listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts, watching foreign TV shows, and possessing foreign publications all rank as “crimes against the state.” Those caught face execution or internment in labor camps. Bribery runs rampant in North Korea, and some citizens find ways to access unauthorized material and get officials to look the other way.
They attach their Kim Il Sung badge to their lapel
North Koreans never leave the house without their Kim Il Sung lapel pins. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Here’s something North Korean residents never leave their home without — their Kim Il Sung lapel pins. As The Guardian says, the badges have been out since the ’60s — and they’re worth quite a bit of money on the black market, too.
NK News reports there are multiple badges depicting the Kim family, and they represent social status for the person wearing them. Most citizens have more than one, and many of the youth use them as a fashion statement. With that said, these badges are often targeted by pickpockets because of the lack of valuable possessions the citizens carry around.
Creepiest ritual: Unsettling theremin music plays in the city every morning
Imagine waking up to the same song every single morning. | Foter.com
This might be the strangest occurrence to happen regularly in just about any country. As Gizmodo reports, a soundtrack plays through the city — and the music is really bizarre. The synth-heavy song is known as morning exercise music, and it’s played around 7 a.m. while everyone is on their way to work, author Helen-Louise Hunter describes in her book, Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea.
Mark Fahey, a journalist who visits North Korea regularly, has even asked locals about the music. He says he heard the “hypnotic music” play every day except Sunday. When he asked a resident of the country about it, they seemingly had no idea what he was talking about.
Residents come home to multiple families living in their single apartment
A lot of families live in very cramped apartments. | KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Home life in Pyongyang isn’t glamorous — especially when residents are constantly worrying about whether they’ll have electricity. Zed Books reports most of the city operates using an “alternative suspension” system. This means while buildings on one side of the street get electricity, buildings and homes on the other side reside in total darkness until it switches over.
Residents who have an apartment often share it with other families, as housing is short. And because work units dictate where people live, it’s common to reside very close to co-workers. This also encourages neighbors to monitor the activity of other neighbors in the crowded city.
Thanks to the lack of entertainment and electricity, everyone’s in bed early
The city is ghost-like after late hours. | alexkuehni/iStock/Getty Images
There isn’t much nightlife in the city of Pyongyang. The Guardian says by 8 p.m., most workers in the city are home in their drafty apartments, and they sleep in their winter clothes. There are a few movie theaters, but because of the power issue, they often close down early. And the movies shown are pretty much always propaganda-focused.
As for other fun activities, residents of the city like football, basketball, and baseball when they have the time, Zed Books says. But many other leisure-time activities are too expensive for residents. By 10 p.m. on any given night, the city is ghost-like.
At some point, their day will begin with forced labor
Forced labor is common in North Korea, for kids as well as adults. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
The government uses forced labor from its citizens both to control its people and sustain its economy, according to Human Rights Watch. Former North Korean students told Human Rights Watch that schools force students to work for free on farms twice a year. Students aged 10-16 also work to generate funds to pay government officials, maintain the building, and make a profit for the government.
Every day workers work at government enterprises and, while they do theoretically have a right to a salary, they rarely see one. All North Korean families also must send one family member for at least two hours per day, six days a week, to support local government construction or public beautification projects.
North Korea tied with Somalia for the most corrupt country in the world
He only knows a life of corruption. | STR/AFP/Getty Images
Somalia has taken the prize for the most corrupt country for the past 10 years, but North Korea’s giving it a run for its money, CNBC reports. The way the country makes money may have something to do with this corruption, too. CNN reports bank hacking has become a large source of revenue for Kim Jong Un and his regime, and there’s also forced labor for industries like mining, logging, and construction.
Because of Kim Jong Un’s ongoing tyrannical ways, the British Medical Bulletin suggests the ruler himself may actually feel as if the violence and corruption in his country are totally acceptable and normal. And the citizens, of course, are put through great psychological distress.
Don’t expect much to change
Most of the population gets no help. | Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images
Economic reform typically hasn’t worked. In simple terms, the North Korean ethos is that the state and its leader trump all. And since the country was founded on communist principles, it is the state that provides for its workers. In recent years, however, even that hasn’t been enough. According to NK News, currency reform in 2002 led to rampant inflation. The same thing happened in 2009. The same article estimates as much as two-thirds of the population gets no government help and provides for itself.
Infections causing pneumonia and diarrhea run rampant
Kim Jong Un | Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
The discovery of parasites living within the North Korean defector shed some light on what health problems citizens of the country may be facing. The Journal of Preventative Medicine and Public Health says infections that cause diarrhea and pneumonia are killing children at an alarming rate. Some reports even say over a third of school-age children in North Korea have diseases caused by the presence of parasites in their intestines.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, sexually-transmitted infections and hepatitis B are also huge problems for the country.
Diseases like malaria and tuberculosis have ravaged the country
Citizens aren’t protected against common illnesses and diseases. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
You don’t consider malaria or tuberculosis as much of a threat to your own health — but in North Korea, they’re both still major concerns. These diseases pose a huge threat to the country’s people, though mortality rates from both are steadily decreasing. Here’s what’s odd, though — while less people are dying of TB, the number of people catching the disease remains the same. And as for malaria, things are looking up, as incidences are decreasing countrywide.
Though North Korea is starting to get TB and malaria outbreaks under control, they’re not totally in the clear. The combination of communicable disease coupled with malnutrition and the rise of chronic disease is what’s really killing people.
Food is so scarce that there are fears over cannibalism
Kim Jong Un certainly isn’t starving | STR/AFP/Getty Images
The Independent reports famine is so severe in certain parts of North Korea that there were rumors of cannibalism. One particularly unnerving report said a man living in a poor farming province dug up his grandchild’s corpse to eat it. And another informant in the province of South Hwanghae said a man who tried to eat his children was executed by firing squad.
History explains North Korea has dealt with famine since the mid-1990s. And today, around 41% of the population is undernourished.
And cardiovascular disease is the largest cause of death countrywide
Without access to regular checkups and medications, many will suffer from heart disease. | Ufokim/iStock/Getty Images
Oddly enough, the U.S. and North Korea actually have something in common — and that’s the looming threat of cardiovascular disease. Heart issues stand as the largest cause of death in North Korea. And WHO’s Global Burden of Disease Study in 2004 found heart disease in the country was three times higher than it was in South Korea.
So, why the high risk? An unhealthy diet, heavy tobacco usage, high blood pressure, and air pollution are all among the top reasons. And given Kim Jong Un’s love of cheese and wine, he’s at serious risk of developing heart disease as well.
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