Life in North Korea: What life under Kim Jong-un is really like
Starvation and execution are constant threats in North Korea, where ordinary people are trying to survive in a state that has forbidden most people from earning proper pay and restricting vital imports of food in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
Most outsiders know very little about what really goes on in the super-secretive pariah nation ruled by Kim Jong-un. What we do know is gathered from the reports of experts, defectors, and people who have risked their lives to tell their often harrowing stories.
From black market dealings to state-sanctioned haircuts, read on for 29 eye-opening facts about everyday life in North Korea. All dollar amounts in US dollars.
It is currently year 112 in North Korea
The year 2023 is still an awfully long way off in North Korea. The regime ditched the Gregorian calendar in 1997 and replaced it with the Juche calendar, which is based on Kim Il-sung’s date of birth of 5 April 1912. In North Korea it’s currently year 112.
North Korea is the sixth most-corrupt country in the world
North Korea is currently the sixth most-corrupt country on the planet, according to its ranking on the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International. It shares its sixth-place position with Libya and Haiti. This marks an improvement since 2016, when North Korea was second only to war-ravaged Somalia, but still shows that the nation has a long way to go before it can be considered ‘clean.’
North Korea’s GDP per capita is among the lowest in the world
Although North Korea’s total GDP is relatively healthy at an estimated $19 billion, the most recent data from the CIA suggests the country’s GDP per capita is just $1,700. That’s one of the lowest in the world and the lowest outside of Africa. In fact, the majority of North Koreans live in poverty. According to the World Bank, a staggering 59% of the population works in agriculture, a sector where wages can be as low as $1-$2 a month.
Military expenditure is sky-high in North Korea
The latest data from Statista suggest that the North Korean government spends around 24% of its GDP on defense, the largest proportion of any country. That’s more than double the percentage spent by Oman, which devotes the second-highest percentage in the world at 10.9%.
Showing that Kim Jong-un cares more about flexing his military might than feeding his people, authorities have just described a failed spy satellite launch last month as the country’s “most serious” shortcoming this year. Never mind the devastating famine that’s causing whole families to die inside their homes…
North Koreans are trapped in designated castes from birth
North Korean society is based on a strict class system known as ‘songbun,’ which classifies every citizen from birth according to the status of their father. There are five key social statuses: ‘special,’ ‘nucleus,’ ‘basic,’ ‘complex,’ and ‘hostile.’ These are divided into around 50 sub-classifications, with a citizen’s status determining the type of job they will be allocated and where they can live as an adult.
Only the elite live in the capital Pyongyang
For Life in North Korea Only those lucky enough to enjoy ‘special’ or ‘nucleus’ status are allowed to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, which has roughly 10% of the country’s population. The rest are effectively confined to the countryside, where conditions can be tough and provisions increasingly scarce.