INTERVIEWS

last updated: 01/2024

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NO FREEDOM OF RELIGION

There is no freedom of religion in North Korea. No religious activities, including those related to Christianity and Buddhism, are permitted. Religious institutions and individuals in certain parts of North Korea primarily exist for the sake of appearances to the outside world. In short, North Korea limits all forms of religious practices.
North Korea’s Constitution guarantees the people’s “freedom of religion.” The Socialist Constitution Article 68 stipulates that “Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.” This is merely a legal provision and, in reality, religious freedom is not guaranteed.
On the contrary, a believer of religion faces a severe punishment. In North Korea, the Kim family is virtually God. Therefore, having a religion is equivalent to committing treason. Therefore, those who are caught for having a religion can face the death penalty, beyond imprisonment, or they could be sent to a political prisoner camp.
Most North Korean people are unaware of what religion is or what kinds of religions are there. To them, religion is simply a bad thing that they must not believe.

 

The followings are a compilation of testimonies from several people who left North Korea regarding the perception of religion in North Korea. Through this, we can infer the reality of religious freedom within North Korea.

Name: Song Woo-il (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Train Engineer’s Assistant
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

People don’t know whether there are Catholicism or Buddhism. Buddhism, for example, people know that it has been around from the past, but that’s about it. There are temples. There are a few of them, but I’m not sure if there are monks present. The county has used them to earn money from historical site tourism, or they might have kept them for historical conservation. But there seemed to be no monks there. Things like having your head shaved and living as a monk are not allowed.
I’ve heard about churches before, that there was a church somewhere in Pyongyang. Ah, I meant a cathedral, not a church. I heard that there was one for the sake of formalities. Even if there was a church in North Korea, people couldn’t have gone there. That would be illegal. Imagine you have a 10-year-old child, and you tell them, ‘Don’t do this and that.’ The child wouldn’t do it, would they? In the same way, the Ministry of State Security conducts a so-called ‘Political Doctrine.’ They give presentations once or twice a year to elementary school students, beginning from the first or second grade, and tell them what things are not allowed. They would show the Bible and say, ‘This is a tool to dismantle our Republic, used by the South Korean puppets.’ With the hatred implanted from an early age, the kids naturally think of the Bible as something bad.
When I was in North Korea, I wondered why people with the Bible were taken away. The question always lingered, but I couldn’t get an answer because I never had a chance to actually read one. In South Korea, I realized that the thick, brown book I had seen in one of the presentations was a Bible. I think now that they didn’t allow us to read the Bible because they thought people might start having beliefs in the church and not listen to what they say.

Name: Jang Yon-ju (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 2000s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed
Year of Escape From North Korea: 2019

It was around 2017 or 2018 when there was an execution related to things like God or Christianity. (Translator’s note: the word ‘God’ is a translation of Hananim. The word Hananim is used also in South Korea specifically denoting the Christian God.) At that time, I didn’t know about Christianity, but apparently, there was a woman in Cheongjin or somewhere who claimed that she was God, lured teenagers, and made them worship her. She was caught and publicly executed, and her follower-teenagers were sent away somewhere. I didn’t see the execution myself. I heard she was shot. In North Korea, people must attend public executions. Even your workplace tells you to go. But I was a student then, and students were exempted from seeing one. The state does not send students to public executions.
The teenagers were sent to political prisoner camps. The youngest among them was a middle school student, and the others were around 16 or 17 years old. Their parents told them that it was all their fault. All these are the result of too much brainwashing. The parents had to follow them to political prisoner camps as punishment. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are already seen as Gods, and isn’t it unimaginable to worship another god? They were teenagers, and hence their parents also had to take responsibility. Their children did something wrong, so they were also punished. I don’t know exactly where they were sent. It was big news at that time, and I was surprised because I’d never heard anything like that before. I came across the word ‘God (Hananim)’ for the first time and wondered what that was.

Name: Kang Min-wook (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1980s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unknown
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2020

I’ve never seen a religious person in North Korea. People don’t believe in religion. In the North, religion means God, church, and Christianity. These words cannot be uttered. It becomes a huge problem. Didn’t a pastor in South Korea try to cross the border and get caught? It was lucky for him not to have been shot. People are easily killed in North Korea. There was no religion, but there were superstitions. Superstitions mean things like marital compatibility and face reading. Those who performed these were called ‘Face readers,’ like South Korea’s shamans. There were face readers here and there in secret. But the day they got caught meant the end of the whole family, so they disappeared over time. It becomes a scene when these are done in public. Superstitions were treated this way, so what would be the case for a religion? How can religion make sense in North Korea when Kim Il-sung is considered God? The idea of religion is simply nonsense.

Name: La Jong-ju (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Pyongsan County, North Hwanghae Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retail Shop Assistant
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

In North Korea, Christianity and Catholicism are both regarded as superstitions. When I was in school, a 70-to-80-year-old granny was executed for believing in superstition. It was around 2017 and 2018. I didn’t witness the execution scene, but they told people to gather at a place called Susongchon in Chongjin. All the university students and workers in the area were called, people assembled, and the execution took place. I don’t know exactly how many people gathered, but it was a lot. I went to the place, but the last thing I heard was ‘You are executed in the name of the People,’ and I didn’t see the rest. People later told me that she was shot 
Attending public executions is mandatory. Each school is given a quota of how many students must attend a public execution, to be held at a certain place and time. Not only adults but also school students are required to attend. I’m not so sure about elementary school students, but middle school students had to be present as part of their cultural education.

Name: Paek Hwa-hye (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unknown
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2018

You can’t have a religion in North Korea. There were people who were sent to prison for it. Most of them were Christians and they were caught reading the Bible. I read the Bible only once in North Korea. I had a brother and he had South Korean videos, dramas, and books (document files on the mobile phone). That was around 2010, the time when people began having mobile phones. At that time, the state didn’t know what was going on and let things be. And then, after a few years, the state realized the situation and stopped access to all such things. I noticed that there was something like a book on the mobile phone, read it, and thought it was really strange. I deleted the file straightaway. That was the Bible. I didn’t know what it was then. I just thought the words were somewhat strange. I didn’t read it much. It was not interesting and I couldn’t understand the meaning. ‘Okay’ I thought, and that was it. 
The husband of someone I knew was caught for having a Bible. ‘Is he mad or something’ I thought at that time, but now that I think about it, he believed in God. That was around 2015, 2016. In North Korea, when you get caught worshipping God, you go to a political prisoner camp. That is considered worse than watching a South Korean film. Of course, watching South Korean films is forbidden but reading the Bible is considered worse. South Korean films are deemed a misdemeanor of adolescents and forbidden because their minds might be altered somehow, but having a religion is a completely different story. North Korea is a country where Kim Jung-un needs to be worshipped but isn’t a religion about worshipping God? So, the interpretation of having a religion is much harsher. In the extreme, the question could be ‘Kim Jong-un or God?’. I think those who read the Bible can face death sentences. 
Personally, I think getting executed is better than going to a political prisoner camp. If there is a chance of escaping the camp, it would be the best but if that option is impossible, then execution could be better. If you go to a political prisoner camp, you are treated completely differently from ordinary criminals. You are considered worse than murderers. It becomes a problem with the ideology. Other crimes might be understood as an act of desperation, but going to a political prisoner camp means that you are a traitor to the country.

Name: Han Kyung-hak (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Civil Servant
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

There were still executions in 2019 when I left North Korea. Some women in Hoeryong were shot to death for having a religion. It was around March, or April 2019. I saw the execution. I heard that a woman aged between 56 to 58 was the leader. Children aged 8, 12, and 16 were involved in it too, as well as a granny over 60. The story went that the woman secretly led the children to believe in a religion in her house. The children were too young to be executed. Instead, the 56-year-old woman was shot in front of people at Susongchon River. North Korea is very strict about religion. If I lived in China for a time and returned to North Korea, the first thing they would investigate is whether I had contact with any religions. They vigorously inquired about whether I had met a pastor or a missionary.
Those who were punished were Christians. In North Korea, Christianity is regarded, without question, as completely anti-state, anti-Party, and anti-revolutionary. North Korea is a country with a rigid ideology. Kim Il-sung’s Juche Ideology is their slogan, so checking whether someone is ideologically contaminated is their utmost priority.
As far as I see it, people who believe in a religion are an extreme minority. The numbers can’t be many. That’s because if caught, that will be the end of not just them but the whole family. So, people wouldn’t do it. However, I cannot say that the number is zero. There must be some extreme few. That’s because there are people who returned to North Korea after having contact with the Bible or religion from a pastor or a missionary in China. Even so, even if there are believers, I’d say the number would be less than ten in a region.

 

EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM

The following is a description of the education system in North Korea: Kindergarten – 1 year, Primary school – 5 years, Junior-Middle school (referred to as middle school) – 3 years, and Senior-Middle school (referred to as high school) – 3 years. Thus, the education system consists of 12 years in total and is both compulsory and state- funded. North Korea proudly promotes this as the “comprehensive 12-year compulsory education system” claiming it to be the “most superior form of socialist education.”

However, the “free education system” is superficial and does not provide adequate education for students. Contrary to its name, students are often asked to provide money or goods to the school and teachers for school management. Those from less privileged families feel excessive pressure to give money to the schools and subsequently, choose not to attend school. Instead, some students choose to earn money through participating in simple labor, running small businesses, or engaging in smuggling and illicit activities instead of pursuing formal education. There are a significant number of students who end up earning money as opposed to attending school.

Furthermore, students are often required to engage in various types of work both between classes and after school. These tasks range from light labor, such as maintaining school facilities or cleaning the town streets, to more labor-intensive jobs like farming in the fields, road maintenance, and construction work. Students are not provided with safety gear, and it is common for them to treat injuries on their own since no protections are in place in case of injury. Because this work is mandatory, students do not receive any form of payment for their labor.

Behind the facade of this free compulsory education system, which North Korea boasts as the longest duration of government funded education in the world, are children forced into labor by the state. In North Korean society, child labor has been viewed as normal for the past few decades. People do not even consider it a problem in society.

The following are summaries of testimonies from North Koreans, who left North Korea, regarding their lived experiences of subjugation to child labor in schools during their youth. These testimonies shed light on the reality of forced labor experienced by North Korean students.

Name: Noh Yong-ju(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Famale
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang
Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Kindergarten Teacher
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2018

I don’t remember it well since it was a long time ago, but when I was a primary student and something like the school fence collapsed, parents would come in to fix it. We helped them with the work at that time. We had other small tasks like cleaning the school playground. We weren’t asked to do labor-intensive work until middle school. However, as soon as I entered high school, we were tasked with all sorts of work, almost like factory laborers. Railway mobilization was a regular thing. We had to break the pebbles that were scattered on the railway grounds into neat pieces. Apartment construction was another task we had to do. If concrete mixture had to be carried from the ground to the top floor, the students were called to do it. We had to figure out how to do everything ourselves; one might use a small plastic bucket or tear a piece from a sack to complete the task. We had to bring our own tools, and if I didn’t bring a pair of gloves, it was my loss.
They didn’t provide us with any safety equipment. They told us to carry the stuff to the upper floors without any equipment, so we had to bring our own safety gear. We continued working each afternoon, from Monday to Saturday. There was a set amount of work each day, so they would let us go home early if we finished quickly. But to be honest, the students weren’t eager to work; we just wanted to hang out. We were worried that if we finished early, they might give us more work. So, we mainly chatted and did very little work. Then, as the sun began to set and it got more difficult to see, they would tell us to go home, concerned about potential accidents. Before it got too dark, our school teacher would go around and say, “If you don’t finish this much, you’re not going home. Just get it done within an hour.” Only with that threat did we start to work hard. Even in high school, our work began at half-past two in the afternoon.
I don’t know where the principal got his orders from, but he passed them down to the head teacher. The head teacher then gathered the teaching staff and told each class what they should do. These were orders that had to be followed, and the work was considered a part of the school, categorized as “field work.” Although it wasn’t a typical class, the school insisted that “since this work is a part of the school’s field work, if you choose not to participate, you must pay instead.” They collected money from the students. Approximately 90% of the students chose to participate in the work rather than pay. The remaining 10% were different: they had distinct goals and advantages. They came from well-to-do families and were determined to attend a university in Pyongyang. To achieve this, they needed to focus on their studies, so they paid the money instead and went to private tutors’ houses in the afternoon. This arrangement was widely known among the students, and the students who chose to work couldn’t complain about their absence.
The school started at eight in the morning and ended at one in the afternoon. Lunchtime was from 1 to 2 PM, and we returned to school by half-past two. This time was supposed to be for co-curricular activities or for studying, as indicated in the curriculum, but that rarely happened. I wish they had made us study during that time, but instead, they sent us to work. We were given tasks for road management and maintenance, worked on the railway, and were even sent to fields owned by universities for the purpose of growing crops to be rationed to the staff in the autumn. There, we planted cabbages, beans, and other crops.
We didn’t receive any payment for our labor, of course. We had to work from half-past two in the afternoon until the job was done, and there was no fixed time for that. If I worked a bit slowly, I might even go home as late as midnight, but typically, it ended before 9 PM. There weren’t any provisions provided to us during work. I could get dinner after I finished work and went back home. I worked this schedule along with schoolwork from Monday to Friday.

Name: Cho Sang-ah(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Somewhere in Ryanggang
Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Trading Company Worker
Year of Escape From North Korea: 2019

Middle and high school students are forced to work, and it can be quite tough. There are roads and railways classified as “Type-1 Roads” that require maintenance. There’s also what’s known as “Potato Mobilization” which is somewhat similar to volunteer farm work in South Korea, but here students go for a whole month. I think I participated in this after becoming a high school student. During this month, you have to take care of everything yourself, including meals. You just go there for a real struggle. Do you think rich kids also go to the farms? The answer is no because the work is hard. How often do you think they’ve held a hoe in their hands? Furthermore, let’s say you are a wealthy student. You calculate the money you have to pay the school for not doing farm work versus the personal costs of meals, clothing, and other expenses. If you find that paying the school is the cheaper option, you choose that. However, the school is required to send a certain percentage of students for mobilization; they can’t allow everyone to pay their way out. So, the school excuses approximately 50% of students and sends the other 50% to work. But even among that latter 50%, there might be a student with a powerful or wealthy parent who arranges for a large vehicle, like a bus, for transportation for the school. In such cases, the student gets exempted from mobilization as well.
So, do you get the idea of how things work? The poor kids may consider the wealthier kids as sly, but they often have no choice but to overlook it. After all, without the rich dad’s help, they would have had to cover transportation costs themselves. The thing is, though, while you can send someone else to participate in one-day mobilizations, for these long-term mobilizations that last more than a month, that’s not an option. In such cases, students simply pay 1,500 to 2,000 Chinese Yuan (approx. 200 to 270 US Dollars) to the school and don’t participate. Honestly, that’s a big sum of money. For kids whose parents can’t even afford 50 to 100 Yuan, they have no choice but to go to work.

Name: Kim Soo-jung(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang
Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: High School Student
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

North Korea provides free education, so there are no school fees. However, schools often demand various payments from the students. They give reasons such as “We need to make clothes with rabbit skin for the People’s Army” or “We need to decorate our classrooms.” They asked each student to bring three rabbit skins, but many students simply paid cash instead because obtaining rabbit skins was quite difficult.
During the school year, we were sent to work in the fields to pick weeds during the summer. We would spend a month doing this. After our morning lessons, we often had to do afternoon work. Most schools started at nine and ended at two, though in actuality, we usually finished at around one. We would head home for lunch and then return to school. Then it was time for some labor. One of these works was the so-called “Blueberry Mobilization” where we were required to pick blueberries near Paektu Mountain. These were essentially forced labor without any compensation. Refusing to participate would result in severe reprimands, so all students, even those who typically didn’t participate, showed up. Teachers would publicly embarrass those who didn’t participate in front of the entire class, and they would even impose payments on those who refused to work. Despite this, there were still one or two students who chose not to take part, and they came to school less and less.
But I only went as far as middle school and didn’t enroll in high school. I was supposed to, but I simply didn’t. The problem in school was that students were required to pay money. They would call out the names of students who hadn’t paid, saying, “You haven’t paid”, and send those students back home to get the money. This continued until they paid. The students who hadn’t paid were then asked to stand up, to be embarrassed in front of others. Following such treatment, students would often complain to their parents, who, in turn, told them to just not go to school.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t go to high school, so I don’t have all the details. However, my sister told me that there were around 30 names listed per classroom, but only 19 or 20 students actually came. Students often skipped school because they were constantly required to pay money. In reality, it’s not truly free education.

Name: Paek Yong-mi(pseudonym) Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Somewhere in Kangwon Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Street Vendor Year of Escape from North Korea: 2017

I was a good child when I lived in Kangwon Province. However, after graduating from school, we needed to move to a different region, which meant we needed money. So, I started working and began to understand the value of money. When I moved to Ryanggang Province, what struck me was that people there had started working at the age of eight or nine, and they were so focused on earning money that they didn’t even attend school. In Kangwon Province, if students didn’t show up, teachers would visit their homes or send other students to check on them, but in Ryanggang, the school didn’t seem to care, and students did as they pleased. There were differences in lifestyle and culture between the two regions, and I felt that money was the only common topic I could discuss with the people in Ryanggang. It was at this point that I began to think, ‘This is a bit scary.’ Everyone was so determined to earn money, and there were frequent conflicts over it.
When I went to primary and middle school, there was a lot of labor work to do besides schoolwork. I worked every day. There wasn’t a day I didn’t. I was assigned tasks like sweeping the roads and providing support work in the countryside. In primary school, I was too young to be sent to a farm, so my tasks mainly involved cleaning the streets. The management director of the collective farm was a rich man, and the school could benefit from his favor. So, I believe it was during the 2nd grade of middle school when the principal told students to participate in farm support. Sometimes, when farms needed help with some construction work, we carried stones and sand. These labors were imposed by the school. Teachers instructed us to prepare some things after school, such as sacks, and failing to do so resulted in scolding. At school, we were taught, but we were also forced to work.

Name: Lim Jung-Jin(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Somewhere in North Hwanghae
Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retail Staff
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

I lived in both North Hwanghae Province and North Hamgyong Province, and the fact that I had to work after school was the same in both regions. I recall that we had six classes a day: four in the morning and two in the afternoon. When we finished our afternoon lessons, it was usually around three or four o’clock. At that point, I would head to work in the fields. Since I lived in the countryside, I primarily worked on farms. However, students in urban areas had different types of tasks, such as watering the grass or cleaning the area around the statue of Kim Il–sung. It would have been challenging for them to suddenly travel to the distant countryside. Road maintenance was an everyday task…
When I was young, I frequently worked on farms. I remember working on a nearby farm. Come to think of it now, it was an opium farm. At that age, we were too young to understand what those plants were, so we simply followed instructions to shake off the round poppy seeds. While doing this, we would pick up and taste the powder. It had a nutty flavor and made us feel drowsy. This opium farm was part of a state-run collective farm, and many poppies bloomed along the road leading to the school. I can’t remember the name of that farm, but there were several opium farms in my region. Additionally, there were ginseng farms and other farms that produced medicinal ingredients. I’m not certain about the scale of the production. I was young, sent there to shake off the seeds, and then came back. School teachers accompanied us during these farm tasks. They said that a certain number of students from each classroom had to participate.

Name: Choi Yeon-joo(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 2000s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong
Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

In my neighborhood, people often took on work that came from China, which was something like subcontracting. Most of the work was actually done by teenagers. They were really quick and skilled with their hands. Many of them didn’t attend school. I’d say that around a quarter of teenagers in my area didn’t go to school, and this was the case even in my more developed town. Even if you graduated from university, there were no job opportunities available. So, unless you had a specific career path in mind, everyone just went to earn money. In our school, students were sent to visit the homes of absentees, find them, and bring them back to school.
In North Korea, attending school is compulsory, but there are many kids who don’t. That’s because the state claims it offers free education, but in reality, it’s not free at all. Every day, the school asks for payments, saying ‘Pay for this’ or ‘Bring this or that.’ In the past, we had to bring waste paper or metal scraps, but now, the school asks you to bring cash instead. This makes every kid dislike going to school. If you don’t pay, the teacher might make you clean or even physically beat you. For instance, if you’re supposed to bring two kilograms of waste paper, the teacher might demand 5,000 North Korean Won (approx. 0.7 US Dollar) instead. For metal scraps, it could be around 10,000 to 15,000 Won. Mothers scold their children. I mean, that’s basically a day’s earnings going straight to the school. Schools scold the children too, so they’re caught in between. Schools demand money practically every week, and sometimes even every day. Moreover, if there’s construction work at the school, they ask students to bring 100 Chinese Yuan. How many parents would willingly give such a large sum? As a result, many kids end up not going to school.
Parents don’t wish to send their kids to school either. If the parents are not wealthy, it appears that they give some work to their children. This is why there were so many kids doing work from China, which was pretty much the only source of work. I’m concerned about how they manage to make ends meet. They may take on jobs assigned by the state, but there is no salary or rationing.

COVID 19

On May 5, 2023, the WHO lifted the “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)” declaration for COVID-19. Previously, in January 2020, the WHO had declared a global emergency as COVID-19 began to spread worldwide.
Over the last three years, countries around the world have been seeking international collaboration against COVID-19. However, North Korea has pursued a solitary approach. In January 2020, North Korean authorities transitioned to a “National Emergency Preventive System” and imposed a comprehensive closure of land, sea, and air borders. The authorities refused external assistance from the international community and declared they would combat COVID-19 with their own resources. For more than two years, they maintained the stance of having “zero confirmed cases,” but on May 12, 2022, the authorities officially acknowledged the first confirmed case. A “Maximum Emergency Preventive System” followed. On August 10 of the same year, they claimed the complete resolution of the COVID-19 crisis, lowered the level of the preventive system to “Normal”, and celebrated their victory over the pandemic. However, this is solely the assertion of the North Korean authorities. Due to the limited public information regarding the COVID-19 situation within North Korea, we have faced difficulties in understanding what the actual past and current states of COVID-19 in North Korea have been, how on-site preventive measures were implemented, and what kinds of human rights violations have occurred during the process. Amnesty International Korea (AIK) conducted in-depth interviews on the initial preventive measures against COVID-19 in North Korea. The few interviewees, identified through extensive inquiry, were individuals who had left North Korea after 2020. The severely limited number of samples makes the inherent limitation clear: it is difficult to obtain a generalized view of the preventive measures in North Korea solely based on these words. Nonetheless, considering the scarcity of related information available beyond official announcements from the authorities, their experiences serve as a valuable additional source of information.
The following is a summary of testimonies, categorized by topics, from three individuals who experienced the initial COVID-19 preventive measures in North Korea in 2020. Due to the exceedingly small number of individuals who have managed to leave North Korea after 2020, personal information beyond the demographic characteristics of the testifiers will not be disclosed to protect their privacy.

1. The Beginning of the Preventive Measures
Person A: The preventive measures against COVID-19 began in February 2020. We also started wearing masks at that time.
Person B: I believe the state became “tough” against COVID-19 from early January 2020.
Person C: We began wearing masks in January 2020.

2. Acquisition and Wear of Masks
Person A: From February, I couldn’t go anywhere including my workplace without a mask. They told us to wear one no matter what, even if that meant making a cloth mask ourselves at home. Vendors sold masks in marketplaces and those kinds of places, and I bought those. They sold homemade cloth masks as well as disposable masks like the ones used in South Korea. The price was about 1,500 to 2,000 North Korean Won* per mask. It wasn’t expensive and they were affordable. Masks were widely available and I could get one anywhere as long as I could pay for it.
*8,300 North Korean Won ≈ 1 U.S. Dollar
Person B: From early and mid-January 2020, the enforcement of masks was strict. You couldn’t set foot outside without one. There were inspectors everywhere. When you got caught, they would keep summoning you. So, you had no choice but to wear it.
Person C: The state restricted people from going outside without a mask. There were two types: disposable masks and cloth masks. Cloth masks were commonly used. They could be washed and reused after each wear. Masks could be bought from the marketplace. The price range was wide, from 1,500 to 10,000 North Korean Won per mask. Some masks were made by local clothing makers, but most of them were from China. Although the border had been closed down, there were already plenty of winter masks from China available. It wasn’t because of COVID-19. Some people already wore masks in winter simply because it was freezing.

3. Movement Restrictions
Person A: Was it June or July 2020? People weren’t allowed to move between counties.
Person B: Moving to other regions had been and wasn’t much of a problem, even during COVID-19. I traveled around a lot during that time. As long as I had my mask on, I could freely move around.
Person C: They restricted people from moving between provinces. For example, you couldn’t move from Hamgyong South Province to Hamgyong North Province. They controlled movements because of COVID-19. But, you could move around in the same province. A group of more than three or four was not allowed to gather. In the past, it was difficult to travel between provinces, but COVID-19 made it even worse.

4. Enforcement of Preventive Measures
Person A: We had to wear masks outside. There was an Inspection Unit every 100m, and the Women’s Union Inspection Unit enforced this measure. And a new type of guard post called ‘COVID-19 post’ was introduced, which was a completely new concept from the previous posts. ‘COVID-19 Standing Organization’ was stationed there. It was also a new organization. Just like any other standing organization, it consisted of individuals from various sectors. They had so much power.
Person B: A so-called ‘COVID-19 Standing Organization’ was formed, consisting of members from the Party institution, administrative institution, and State Security institution. I’m not sure of the exact date when it was formed. A standing organization is a non-permanent organization formed for inspection and enforcement, with members ranging from Party workers, administrative staff, labor groups, prosecutors, and individuals from the Ministry of State Security. In addition to these people, every workplace, Women’s Union, Youth League, and Worker’s Alliance had its own system of enforcement. Things were tough back then. For example, there was management staff at the entrances of marketplaces who sprayed disinfectants on people’s hands upon entry. The same practice applied to restaurants. People were not allowed to gather in groups.
Person C: The control was enforced mostly by the People’s Council, and there were Inspection Units on the streets. The Inspection Units included the Women’s Union Inspection Unit and University Students’ Inspection Unit. They inspected people’s outfits, and masks were included at that time.

5. Quarantine
Person A: Those who had a fever were quarantined. Then, there was a guy who snuck out into the sea. He was caught and was sent to a detention facility. Barricades were set up around his house so that his family couldn’t get out. Wooden posts with “NO ENTRY” signs were placed all over his place. He was treated like a traitor to the country.
Person B: There was really no person to be quarantined. At that time, North Korea had closed down its borders to prevent COVID-19, and there was no COVID-19 in the country.

6. Checking Temperatures and COVID-19 Tests
Person A: There was a thermometer at the workplace. During work, I checked my temperature three times a day: once in the morning, once at midday, and once before leaving for home. If your temperature was above 37°C, that was considered as a symptom. Water for disinfection was sprayed everywhere and was used for washing hands.
Person B: Temperatures were checked before entering places that could get crowded. That included marketplaces, workplaces, and schools. The level of medicine in North Korea is not as developed as in other countries, but they do have the necessary basics covered. They have designated hospitals and doctors, so if someone developed a fever, he would have gone under a test. But I never received a COVID-19 test. No one around me got COVID-19, and I never heard of someone receiving a test.
Person C: I never took a test for COVID-19 in North Korea. Even by the time I went to South Korea, I hadn’t heard of any COVID-19 cases in North Korea.

7. Access to Information and Guidelines for Prevention
Person A: The state informed us about COVID-19. They continued to talk about how scary and threatening COVID-19 was. They also informed us of the number of deaths and the way people died. I could see that through TV. TV showed images of people dying in other countries like Brazil. They implanted the terror of COVID-19 with images like people vomiting blood. Such broadcasts appeared nearly every day and without stopping. There were lectures held continuously. I participated in them at the workplace every morning. They told us about what kind of instructions on COVID-19 came down from the Party and what actions to take, like checking temperatures three times a day and disinfecting.
Person B: At that time, the state informed people about COVID-19—everything from washing hands to safety guidelines. They were “tough” on such matters. These measures were implemented from January 2020. At the workplace, you were informed at the start of the morning routine, just like in morning assemblies in South Korea. You were told about preventive measures right from the morning. It almost hurt your ears. The information was detailed. There wasn’t a lack of information or anything like that. The content included the Party’s instructions, such as ‘you are to wear a mask for prevention from this particular date.’
Person C: There is only one political party in North Korea. Its instructions are passed down the pyramid structure to the smallest cells of the party. Their words are delivered smoothly and in an organized manner down to the lower levels, including the People’s Unit and schools. The state continued to educate people on COVID-19 in this way. And something new came out called the COVID-19 Emergency Preventive Organization. It consisted of four to nine people, and they came to workplaces at random and asked people questions about the content provided by the state. If one failed to give a proper answer, they punished him. They were really strict at that time.

8. Punishments
Person A: There was a person who violated the movement restrictions, but he wasn’t punished. He was stopped at the post and was sent back.
Person B: No one violated the preventive measures. No one protested. If you were caught wandering around without a mask, unless you were a nutcase, you asked for forgiveness. Everyone wore masks because they were enforced. And unless you are a lunatic, you follow the Party’s instructions. It’s impossible to think of violating them.
Person C: They told us if I failed to follow the preventive measures, I would be sent to a disciplinary labor center for two to three days, with a maximum of 10 days.

9. Stock Medicine, Vaccines, and Treatments
Person B: There was plenty of medicine available. North Korea produced its own medicine domestically, and there was also medicine imported from China. People tended to avoid taking medicine from China, and I personally did not take any new ones from China either. Instead, I took a lot of high-quality medicinal ingredients and ginseng from the mountains.
Person C: In North Korea, for small illnesses, people treat themselves with traditional methods rather than going to a hospital. For example, if they have symptoms of a cold, they think “Ah, I’ve got a cold,’ and take medicine for that.

10. A Fever Patient (a confirmed case), Persons with a Cold or Similar Symptoms
Person A: There hadn’t been a patient at the time I left North Korea. It seemed people didn’t come out of their houses if they thought they had a slight fever. There was no suspected patient of COVID-19. But there were people with symptoms of cold and those who even died after that.
Person B: When I was in North Korea, there were no COVID-19 patients. In North Korea, when you have a fever, you just think it’s a cold and take medicine for that. I never saw anyone very ill. And people don’t make a fuss about being sick. Everyone is busy living their own lives.
Person C: People didn’t even catch a cold. That was because people wore masks. I heard personally from the medicine vendor that he couldn’t sell any cold remedies that year. Wearing a mask was uncomfortable for sure, but that did keep people away from getting a cold.

11. Rumors
Person A: After I left, I heard rumors that a person who violated the preventive measures was executed in North Korea. When I lived there, things were not as extreme as that.
Person B: I never heard any rumors about COVID-19 patients in other regions. No one had it at that time.
Person C: I heard that after the border was closed down, there were people who starved to death due to insufficient food supply. I never witnessed such a case myself, but I was told that it took place mostly in rural areas. As you know, COVID-19 went across North Korea last year in 2022. Someone told me about his experience. He said it went away like a cold.

12. Domestic Situation
Person A: The state emphasized that there wasn’t a single COVID-19 patient in North Korea. We believed that because that’s what the media said.
Person B: The TV said that people were to wear masks and follow sanitary guidelines since there were no COVID-19 patients in North Korea.
Person C: There was no COVID-19. At least at the time when was in North Korea, the state told us that there was no COVID-19.

13. People’s Perception
Person A: It was a completely different story compared to the past. We had the Ebola virus and avian flu, and people didn’t even flinch. But people took COVID-19 very seriously as something entirely new. At first, people were terrified, but the fear wore off over time. Nevertheless, they still took it seriously; there was even a film about how people died from it. However, the thing is, North Korean people are not so desperate to live. They lack the willingness or enthusiasm for life. It’s more like ‘I’d simply die if I get it’ or ‘What’s the point of living.’ “I might live for a day, but let’s make that day worthwhile”—that’s how people think.
Person C: The state implemented more thorough preventive measures against COVID-19 compared to previous epidemics. People also took COVID-19 very seriously. That was because, even though there was no COVID-19 patient in North Korea at that time, the news reported on the COVID-19 situation in other countries like China and the USA. The news told how many tens of thousands of people were infected and how many have died. Such news was broadcasted during the daily evening news at 8. I learned from the news that COVID-19 was serious and was spreading.

14. The State’s Stance
Person A: I think the level of control was “tough” to the point where it made people’s lives difficult. The Inspection Unit would line up people who were not wearing a mask. There weren’t any physical beatings, though. Anyway, there are no human rights in anything in North Korea; everything is enforced. To be honest, I’m not sure how broad the meaning of human rights is. As for the preventive measures, the state forced people to comply, but it was the same in other countries. I’m not really sure. It’s difficult to make a comparison.
Person C: The methods were somewhat oppressive, but of course this is because North Korea lacks cutting-edge technology. I sort of think that the state didn’t have a choice but to be oppressive. There are no medications, vaccines, or even high-quality medical equipment. There isn’t even proper gear for the doctors to wear. The state banned gatherings of more than a certain number of people, and all institutions, including schools, kindergartens, and universities, were shut down. People were simply not allowed to gather. If a group of four or five people was spotted in the open, they were ordered to disperse. It was said that the elderly and children were especially vulnerable to COVID-19, so children under the age of ten weren’t allowed to roam freely. Unless their parents were with them, children were required to stay at home. Children tend to be more vulnerable to diseases, don’t they? So, even with a mask, young children could not go outside.

15. The Economic and Food Situations
Person A: The price level has really gone up, especially for Chinese goods. There were already people dying even before I left. The shock drove me to leave the country. Such scenes became more frequent in 2021. It became definitely much harder to get oneself fed in 2021 compared to 2019. But one strange thing was that the price of rice didn’t go up. Other goods and goods from China became expensive. I believe it will all be okay as soon as the border with China reopens and things get moving. To start with, the general price level will fall.
Person B: No one eats porridge in North Korea nowadays. Everybody has rice and three meals a day. Despite the economic blockade, despite the sanctions from the UN and the USA, it’s not like the Arduous March in the 1990s—people don’t care. They just think “Oh, there you go again, you bastards.” Even if other countries impose economic sanctions, North Korea survives. On the contrary, it thrives over time. Others may assume North Korea is in a desperate situation but that’s not true. It’s very likely that even now, people manage to have three meals a day, though not plentifully.
Person C: The marketplaces were functioning. However, those who sold goods from hoarded supplies were the ones making a lot of money. COVID-19 caused prices to multiply. The price of rice didn’t go up much, but items like sugar, cooking oil, and spices multiplied. I believe the current food situation is still challenging. There are likely people dying of starvation. The authorities don’t make it public, but there must be. Farming is getting worse over time. The situation in cities may be worse at the moment. Those in the countryside can at least farm, regardless of the results. In cities, people can’t farm, and small-scale businesses like their cottage industries, reliant on orders from China, have been cut off. However, I do wonder whether new types of work have come about in response to the current situation.

The Army

March 2023 marks a decade since the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (COI) by the UN Human Rights Council. The COI stated in the report released in February 2013 that there were “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights by the State” as well as crimes against humanity. In the international community, there was a widespread opinion that those responsible for human rights violations in North Korea must be held accountable, in accordance with the recommendations of the COI. Civil society, at both the domestic and international level, has taken the lead in various activities aimed at achieving practical justice for North Korean human rights. As a result, over the last decade, we have observed some positive changes taking place in the North Korean human rights situation and the attitude of the North Korean authorities towards human rights. This does not mean that the situation in the country has not worsened throughout this period though. The human rights situation in the military is believed to be the worst case of all in North Korea since the army is a group excluded from the outside. According to North Koreans who left North Korea, many human rights violations and irregularities are prevalent in the North Korean army. On the surface, North Korea has a volunteer military system, meaning only those who want to join the army can do so. However, social discriminations exist against those without military experience. In reality, people are forced to join the army. It is common for many soldiers to defect due to the iniquity during the long, ten-years of military service. Nevertheless, the North Korean army has undergone changes. According to the testimonies of North Koreans who left the country during their military service, the human rights situation in the military has improved compared to the past. One example of this is the introduction of guidelines prohibiting senior officers from employing physical violence, which has led to a decrease in the number of cases of physical abuse. However, the human rights situation in the North Korean military still seems dire in several aspects. Two notable issues are hunger caused by food shortages and intensified corruption due to the spread of bribery and abuse of authority, and there are no signs of improvement in these areas. The following excerpts are from recent testimonies by North Koreans who left North Korea regarding human rights in the military. The experiences of North Korean soldiers reveal not only the dire human rights situation within the military but also yet another dark aspect of North Korea.

Photo taken Dec. 18, 2020, from the Chinese border city of Dandong shows a North Korean soldier standing guard on Hwanggumpyong Island in the Yalu River.

Name: Cha Song-hwa (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Former Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2013

I served in the military for nine years and was discharged. The year I enlisted was 1994 and the economy in North Korea was already struggling. It got worse from 1995 to 1998 to the point that even life in the military became harsh. Starving soldiers would climb up mountains to eat grass, only to die eventually. I had three meals a day, but I don’t mean square meals at all— a bowl of rice mixed with corn, along with radish saturated in salt. Menu plans were part of the regulations and three side dishes were supposed to be offered, but that salted radish was the only thing on the table. On a rare occasion, another side dish was served. In fact, the amount of food allocated for military use is a fixed number. As long as the food is properly collected and properly distributed, food shortage shouldn’t happen. But the cadres embezzle supplies during the process, snatching them in the middle, and using them for personal gain. As a result, soldiers always didn’t get enough food. The situation got worse with the plunging economy at that time.  During my service, there was a large increase in the number of soldiers unable to perform due to malnutrition. Male and female soldiers lived in separate areas, so I didn’t get a chance to closely observe the men, but a lot of the women suffered from malnutrition. When a woman is malnourished, it’s horrible even to look at. Some of my comrades died from it. It’s difficult to recover once you become malnourished.

Name: Ko Chan (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape From North Korea: 2019

In North Korea, when you finish school, you are 18 years old. As soon as I graduated, I was assigned to a Storm Troop (also referred to as Youth Shock Guard, Kor: dolgyeokdae). The one I was placed in was where you serve for ten years. There are various types of Storm Troops. Whereas the military defends the frontlines, Storm Troops only do construction work. We mostly built buildings. The brigade was in Hyesan, but our work was in other locations. Storm Troops are also called ‘half-military’. Not military in the full sense, but tougher to serve in than the military in general. As far as I know, the military has Sundays off, but we Storm Troops didn’t. You could say we worked all 365 days a year. They woke us up at 5 a.m. We didn’t get time to wash our faces. Just straight to work. Breakfast was served at 7:30. Then, after a 10~15 minute break, we went to work again. Lunch was usually served between 1:30 and 2:00. The menu was mostly corn porridge with salt. It’s a bit difficult to swallow bowl after bowl of rice without any side dishes… We didn’t know when we would have dinner. Sometimes it was 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. the next morning. We were fed only after our work was done. We went to sleep only after our work was done… We didn’t know when it would be finished or when we could go back. There were no official break times. We just had to find your own way to get some rest in.  We received three meals a day – corn, mostly. They said each person would get 200g, but in reality, it was closer to 100~120g. It was not even enough to fill a fist. I was hungry right away after each meal. It was just nonsense to work all day long with 120g of food. Life was too exhausting, so many guys would run away. So many people try to escape. When caught, you get beaten. There are professional catchers. The Storm Troops brigade is large, so the number of escape attempts is high. There are a lot of beatings. I’ve never been beaten for my work, though a lot for my escape attempts. Even if you report the beating to the commander, he is already busy with his own work, so he doesn’t care. It’s your own fault if you get beaten or hurt. You have to try not to get hit. It’s a pitiful life.  As far as I can remember, I was paid twice during three years of service in the Storm Troops. 4,000 North Korean won. It’s worth a kilogram of rice. But they took away chunks for things like funds for the Party. After that, what I really got was around 2,500 won. So I didn’t care about the money at all. Whether I was paid or not didn’t make much of a difference.

© Getty Images

© Getty Images

Name: Yang Yu-hyuk (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

I did my military service in Pyongyang before leaving North Korea. I worked in the office building of the Ministry of National Defense. It’s one of the most important places, so everything was well-provided, including meals. I had white rice and meat all the time. But I heard that troops in other places like Kangwon Province, 1st and 2nd Corps were poorly fed. There wasn’t just enough food to go around. The food supply was bad already and those in charge took chunks away for their own good. As a result, soldiers often broke into civilian houses for food.
In the unit I served in this was not the case, but people starved in other places. Many guys had to return to their homes due to malnutrition. There were a lot of cases like that even in 2018. Also, there were many deserters; I’d say two out of every ten men. They ran away because they were hungry and exhausted. The only side dishes served were white salted radish and beans. Depending on the region, troops were served with either rice with corn or white rice. Ordinary troops could get meat maybe once a month. You could say they had meat only on national holidays.  People join the military so that they can join the Party later. There is an incredible difference between those who are Party members and those who are not. You can become a cadre only if you’ve served in the military. Without military experience, it’s difficult to become a cadre, however smart you are.

Name: Choi Ho-jin (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2018

I graduated from high school, went to the army, and served for about three years. During my service, I suffered from a herniated disc and was medically discharged. A medical discharge is where soldiers who are ill or injured are discharged. My herniated disc was a result of physical beatings by my seniors in the army. After being discharged, I took care of my condition for three to four years and it improved. I was put on the social security list and I took care of myself at home. Social security is a system that allows those who can’t work in society to stay at home.  Even though I was medically discharged due to injuries from physical beatings in the army, I didn’t claim the state for compensation. That’s not how things work. On the contrary, if did, I could risk being imprisoned. I just kept my mouth shut. Typically if you become ill or injured, you are sent to a large hospital of a division class, receive an X-ray, and treated for about two to three months. If your condition doesn’t improve by then, you are medically discharged. I came home with my back like that from the army, but I couldn’t ask for help. I would simply suffer in silence.  As far as I know, physical beatings were quite severe until Kim Jong-il’s time. But the situation has improved somewhat under Kim Jong-un. Nowadays, if senior soldiers beat junior soldiers, they are punished to a point and may even be discharged. It’s more common for junior soldiers to get hit by other senior soldiers than by cadres. Even so, I believe that abuse is much more serious than in South Korea. Really serious. In any case, I returned home from an injury that was due to physical beatings for certain. Kim Jong-il died in December 2011, and Kim Jong-un officially came to run the government. I was discharged in May 2011, just before the leadership transition. Physical beatings were common in my time, but when I asked other medically discharged guys after that, they told me things were a bit better.

Name: Kim Hoon (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2018

I served in the army for eight years before I left. Food had been a serious problem even before that. And it seemed that there was a great difference between troops. While food is somewhat supplied to larger units, independent troops in rural areas faced great difficulty in securing adequate supplies. As for the independent troops, they had to rely on farming because actual supplies were just not enough to sustain their lives. That’s why they were hungry. You could say that nearly all troops faced a similar issue. As I said, I served for about eight years, and I was always hungry. I received my salary. Before I came to South Korea, a kilogram of rice was about 4,500 North Korean won, and the cheapest packet of cigarettes was just over 2,000 won. The salary was 140 won. You can’t get two pieces of candy with 140 won. One piece was 100 won. That was the same for the officers. There was rationing in small portions, but having food is not the end of the problem. You also need daily necessities, and the need for that naturally led to corruption. This kind of dirty bribery is prevalent in society and the army, so much so that no one even talks about it.

Name: Kim Hwang-woo (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2018

I served in the army for about five years before being discharged for personal reasons in 2016. Many absurd things happen in the army. Physical beating was the most common one in the past. I was both a victim and a perpetrator. The beatings were severe until 2013. However, when Kim Jong-un came into power, a policy was implemented to put an end to physical violence. After that many commanders were dragged into prisons for common criminals and spent a month or two there. Then, physical beatings disappeared to a large extent.
The funny thing is, physical beatings weren’t that common in places where many eyes were watching, like inside the headquarters. But, in rural areas, at the lower levels of the hierarchy, no one knows what’s happening. They hide such cases of physical violence. If an inspector comes down, those involved would be sent to the mountains to gather herbs or to the fields to graze cows. That’s why I believe physical beatings still occur. But in the headquarters where I served physical beatings have mostly disappeared since 2013. Speaking from my own experience, to be honest, I beat other guys a lot until 2014.  You can report that you were beaten, but the person reporting the incident himself would face shame too. Disturbances are more often caused inside the unit around those people filing reports, and the commander will hate him more than the perpetrator. Because his report has made things in the barrack more complicated. That’s why people don’t report it even if they’ve been beaten. But I heard from guys who were recently in the army that physical beatings are no longer happening.

Name: Ryu Jong-hyuk (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Soldier
Year of Escape from North Korea: 2019

I left North Korea after serving in the army for about five years. These days, the army tells soldiers against physical violence and alcohol consumption. But physical beatings still occur. After all, the North Korean army is composed of human beings, and the way human beings act in a community is somewhat universal. Of course, the culture is different and so is the way of expressing things, and all. As I see it, both the North Korean army and the South Korean army are the same in this regard.  Even in the army, there were no absurdities or physical violence in public places. That causes a problem even in the North. Physical beatings happen when one doesn’t follow orders properly, or when a junior soldier acts cocky toward a senior. Then there is trouble between the two. For juniors, if the senior is intimidating, they will fulfill their orders no matter what. But if the senior seems a bit soft, they won’t be as enthusiastic. Then there comes trouble. Soldiers know that physical violence is commonsensically unacceptable, but there is a general atmosphere of letting things slip, thinking ‘it’s not that serious.’ In North Korea, if the commander or officer deems an incident ‘sort of okay,’ or ‘slightly light,’ he gives the senior soldier the authority to take care of the matter himself. So, physical beatings are not allowed officially, but they are somewhat allowed tacitly. However, there is a line that must not be crossed. As long as it is within the line like the signs of a beating are not too noticeable or the words of the senior soldier who is responsible for the beating seemed legitimate, the matter is overlooked. In North Korea, the food served in the army is really poor even these days. For example, the side dish I got was what we call salted radish, literally radish saturated with salt, similar to South Korea’s pickled radish. When I served, the meals I had were rice and salt soup. There was really nothing in the salt soup except a bit of vegetables. The amount of rice per person was supposed to be 250g, but what I had in the army was about 90g. That meant the rest of the food was leaking out somewhere. South Korean people think that you are better fed in the army in North Korea—I don’t know when they were born and heard these stories—but that’s not true. Soldiers have been poorly fed since the Arduous March. From 1997, the conditions in the army were terrible. Even now, civilians can fill their stomachs better than soldiers.  There is no mandatory military service in North Korea. If you don’t want to, then you don’t have to. But then you will be marked. So, it’s not an obligation but it is. Not mandatory in the legal sense, but in reality. In North Korea, joining the Party is necessary to live in society. If you don’t enlist in the military, then the state makes your life difficult. They will constantly call on you to show up and do various tasks. Joining the army can prevent this from happening. Since Kim Jong-un came into power, the situation in the army has changed a lot. They told us things like ‘don’t beat your juniors.’ There were punishments for physical beatings in the past, but the level of penalties got much more serious. I know that there is a system called ‘sincere letters’ in South Korea. We do a similar thing in North Korea. A field officer comes down from the legion without notice, tells the soldiers to gather, and says ‘If you have anything to say, write it down.’ Those enrolled in the army in 2010 and 2011 had a chance to write, but they couldn’t. I heard that they didn’t even think of writing anything. I too thought writing things down wouldn’t make a difference. Even if one writes, the beater gets scolded a bit and that’s it.

mon@yna.co.kr

The SINSO System

It allows North Korean citizens to file an official complaint about corruption or the unfair actions of state officials or institutions.

Name: Sang-kook Jang (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Factory Worker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017

Even if one files a complaint, there is no punishment. I could get beaten up in the Ministry of State Security and file a complaint somewhere, but it wouldn’t work. I may directly appeal to the Party but there will be no response because it was the Ministry of State Security that did it. But, for example, let’s say I was arrested and forcibly dragged to the police station in my region where I was beaten up. Then I could go to the local People’s Council and file a complaint. I would write ‘I am so-and-so living here, and I was physically beaten by an officer so-and-so in this police station on this date. I believe this to be unfair.’ Then someone will come down for confirmation. But it’s all a show. The perpetrator won’t receive any punishment. If I file a complaint to a person in power, they will check it with the department in charge of complaints. They would put pressure on the department to explain the content of the complaint in detail. The officer in charge of complaints prefers to avoid the pressure from above than to receive bribery from those below them, so they will “pretend” to punish the perpetrator. But people rarely file complaints. It really changes nothing.

Name: Eo-dong Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Prosecutor
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019  Even if a suspect files a complaint for physical violence during an investigation, the state covers up for the perpetrator. In short, in detention facilities in North Korea, people label the victim rather than the perpetrator “bad”. Everyone, from the bottom to the very top dealing with criminals thinks in the same way. ‘You probably deserved that for not giving proper answers,’ is their way of thinking. For example, in South Korea, a police officer or a prosecutor would not hit a suspect. That’s because they would get legally punished for assault. In North Korea, a suspect might get beaten up, but they won’t file a complaint. They know nothing is going to be solved. I was a prosecutor myself in the North, so I’m well aware of these things. I would tell my suspects, “Just stay low unless you want to die.”. Once I had a complaint about hitting a suspect. My response was, “You dare file a complaint! When you did that, didn’t it ever occur to you that I might have people looking after my back? File a complaint! File all the complaints you want! But before that, you are going to a correctional labor camp for sure. Try your best to get me dismissed!”. That was the way it was done.

Name: Won-ho Lee (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Bike Seller
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017 You can file a complaint, but it will not be accepted at all. For formality’s sake, there are “complaint boxes” in police stations and city halls. You put the paper with the details of the complaint in the box, but people there won’t look at it. In South Korea, I found out that a civil complaint gets an immediate response. That isn’t the case in North Korea. In the North, when people get unfair treatment, they try to solve it on their own. They won’t think of making a complaint. Even if I got physically beaten by a police officer, I would let it go and wouldn’t think of filing a complaint. You might find it difficult to understand, but that’s how North Korean people think. We have been living like this since childhood. Opposing the Party is unimaginable.

Name: Jo-hae Jung (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Telecommunications Broker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019 In 2004, I was taken into the Ministry of State Security for an investigation. The suspected crime was making a phone call to someone in South Korea using a Chinese mobile phone. While I was in the ministry’s detention facility, the officer in charge examined the phone, then asked me who gave it to me and who I shared it with. I told him that I didn’t know. Then the officer went “Oh, you shit. You tell me you don’t know?” and beat me. He put on his leather gloves and punched me with his fist. What good would a complaint do against such actions? Such cases need to be dealt with, but they won’t be resolved and instead the person who filed the complaint would face even more harm. So, people can’t file a complaint. They can’t say they got beaten up even if they did. From time to time, an inspector comes down. The inspector calls in the inmates and asks them if they’ve been hit. There are such occasions. But, people can’t tell the truth. Birds of a feather flock together, right? If an inmate says they got beaten, wouldn’t the inspector tell the officer responsible for that about this? The inspector would say, “Hey, did you hit so-and-so at this and that time? They told me you did. You write a report about this by the next party activities review session.” Then unless the officer resigns, harm will come back to the inmate who talked. What can the bird trapped in a cage do against physical violence? They can’t go anywhere, and they would get even harsher treatment while being asked, “You told them you got beaten, again?”

Name: Yong-joo Hwang (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019 North Korean people don’t oppose the state. Because they know such action means their deaths. In South Korea, if people disagree with the government, they can rise up and express their opinions, but if one does that in North Korea, he will be dragged away, locked up in a cell, or be killed. No one sues the state because someone disappears. Only his family would be sad, but they too would not even think of saying something against it. That’s how things go. It may not be good, but people accept that situation. There is no other option. When someone is taken away to a police station or the Ministry of State Security, others may ask where he is taken to but they won’t tell you. No matter how hard people may appeal about the unfairness, they won’t move an inch. There is a system for filing. I can’t give you a personal example on this matter. I haven’t seen anyone around me using it.

Foto: Genia Findeisen

Other Interview-Topics

Name: Ha-seo Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Mundok County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retailer/Confidential Informant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
Topic: Freedom of Expression

In North Korea, people don’t know who is checking on whom. I worked as a confidential informant. No one around me knew I was watching other people. You could say that if my identity got revealed, that would be the day my life ended. I checked on my family, my friends and all the people around me. If they had found me out, my personal relations would have all been cut. So, I had to take extra care. I had to act in secret. But there are people called Ministry of State Security Informants who openly check on people. But they are regular inhabitants also.

Name: Sang-sun Yang(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Tanchon City, South Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retailer
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2018
Topic: Detention Facilities

I heard that people got physically beaten in the detention facilities of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). They were hit by wooden clubs, got tortured and some even got their legs messed up. I was detained in 2007, and the person who was with me told me that she had been detained by the MSS once before. She said that before 2015 and 2016, people got beaten heavily but not anymore (in 2017). When I was there, the officer said, “You traitors should all be killed, but the party urges us to forgive you, so we let you live. We are not going to beat you because outside people blabber about human rights.” Recently, they say the MSS officers do not hit the detainees since human rights became an issue. In the past, anyone who attempted to go to South Korea was sent to political prisoner camps, but not anymore. I think maybe Kim Jong-un feels uncomfortable about [criticism over these human rights violations].

Name: So-yeon Choi(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Smuggler
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
Topic: Executions & Public Executions

In the past, I heard about public executions, but not anymore. It’s all done in detention facilities. I mean that those who are sentenced to death in court are executed in the detention facilities. These kinds of executions are still taking place even now. The woman who shared the room with me in the detention facility of the MSS was in there for murder. She was sentenced to death in court. We were together until the day of her execution. She went out and never returned. And, once I was at the police station, I heard the officers using the term ‘kick’. They meant beating people to death. That was how executions were done. There are professional ‘kickers’, so to speak. They get these officers drunk and tell them to beat the person to death. They can’t do it sober. The dead body is simply dragged out and buried in the ground.

Name: Gwang-hwan Cha(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Kwail County, South Hwanghae Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Telecommunication Broker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2020
Topic: The Right to Health – COVID-19

In North Korea, facilities are old, the system is not properly set up, and the state doesn’t have money—it’s all pathetic. I mean, when there is a confirmed patient, the next step is… just like they did in the past: he or she is quarantined at home, the lights are turned off, and they are not allowed to leave the house. That’s the way the state tries to stop the disease from spreading. It’s difficult to think of treating it with a vaccine or such. The state doesn’t have money, doesn’t have medicine, so those who are quarantined are left to their own fates; those that live would live, and those that die would die. With what money would North Korea import vaccines? A confirmed COVID patient is as good as dead, let alone treatments. 

Name: Gyeong-ran Kim(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1980s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Manpo City, Chagang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Housewife
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
Topic: The Right to Health – Illegal Drugs

I’d say that almost all people in Hyesan and North and South Hamgyong Province have done bingdu (methamphetamine). Those in Chagang province—I wouldn’t say all, but about 70% have done bingdu at least once. People do it a lot because bingdu is somewhat easy to get. Anyone can get it with money. In the past, people shared bingdu a lot, but now it’s become all secret because they are cracking down on its use. At least it was like that at the time I came to South Korea.

Name: Yong-Ho Park(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Farmer
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2018
Topic: The Right to Food

In North Korea, 150~160 kg of grain is required for a person to live through a year. But in the case of farm workers, they didn’t get a chance to taste a single grain. That was because when the state took away the harvest for military provisions, all that was left was potatoes. Potatoes were the only crop that farmers could have, and even then, the most I received in my experience was two months’ worth of supply. That meant I had to figure my own way out for at least the other 10 months of the year. The region where I lived had no trees in the mountains. All were barren because people had plowed all of them up to make small farmlands. They grew potatoes and beans in those lands on their own. Without the small farmlands, we would’ve all starved to death. When the factory work ended, the whole family immediately ran to our small farmland. We would keep working late in the night with some lights on – a small solar-powered torch or a campfire by the land – to fight the dark. It wasn’t just my family; most other families struggled the same way. The farm work was hard already, and the work on the small farmlands on top of it was exhausting. Sometimes I felt bubbles foaming in my mouth while working on the small farmlands. Still, despite it nearly breaking one’s spirit, most people can somehow bear it. Otherwise, it would’ve meant starving to death. Farm workers couldn’t do business in marketplaces. If they did, they could get caught for “attempting to do business while doing a crappy job on the farm.” I mean, even if a farm worker tries to do business – what on earth would they sell? It was just that people had nothing and were desperate to feed themselves. The best they could do was to, once in a while when it was necessary, put corn or beans they had harvested on their backs, walk 40km, and exchange it with rice.

Name: Yang-su Choi(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Rason City, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Civil Servant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017
Topic: Detention Facilities

My wife told me that during the preliminary examination at the police station, she heard words related to human rights. In 2015, she was detained for about 6 months for interrogation. And while she was there, other detainees told each other, “They can’t freely hit us because the world is talking about human rights.” In North Korea, when a person is in a detention facility for either interrogation or fixed sentences, they are treated as dogs and not human beings. Physical violence is an everyday thing. But when my wife was detained, such rumors went around, and she told me she didn’t in fact get hit during the period of her detention. I heard that hitting people in detention facilities went down a lot around that time.

Travelling inside North Korea

Name: Ji-hwa Ryu(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Rason City, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Housewife
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017
“I can’t go freely even to my sister’s or my mother’s house without approval.” – Ji-hwa Ryu
There is no freedom of any form in North Korea. People are even restricted from traveling around. All my life, the place I’ve been to is my sister’s house in Kyongwon in North Hamgyong Province near Rason. The place is not that far, about 80 km away, but I had to get a travel certificate to go there. Without a certificate, one might get caught in a habitation inspection and pay a fine. Every time one moves into a different region, they have to report it. You can see how freedom is limited in North Korea. I can’t go freely even to my sister’s or my mother’s house without approval.

Name: Ji-yang Lee(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retailer
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017
“I can’t go to places as I wish.” – Ji-yang Lee
I lived in Wonsan, Kangwon Province. I went to many places one can think of, including Hamhung and Pyongyang. I didn’t go there for a tour but for business purposes. But in North Korea, I can’t go to places as I wish. I need a travel certificate to visit other regions. To get a certificate, I have to pay bribery to the officer in charge. I had to give 20,000~30,000 North Korean won for a way from Wonsan to Hamhung. A way to Pyongyang or Hyesan cost at least 200,000. It’s not easy to get into Pyongyang and other border regions. It’s free to travel abroad in other countries, but North Korean people are locked in. Even money can’t help with that. The only way is to get approval from the state. Most of the approved cases are for earning foreign currency for the state—loggers to Russia, and restaurant servers to China, for example.

Name: Ha-sun Kim(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Housewife
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2020
“You need a travel certificate to travel within North Korea.” – Ha-sun Kim
You need a travel certificate to travel within North Korea. Hyesan is an especially difficult place for inland people to get a certificate, as it is located at the border. So, the process requires bribery. I once took a car ride from Hyesan to Pyongsong for a family member’s birthday. I gave 150 Chinese yuan for the way there. I had to get a certificate to Pyongsong even for a family visit. There are posts set up along the way for inspections. You can’t possibly get a certificate through normal means. It would take a very long time. So, you buy one with bribery. A certificate is valid for a certain period of time, and you get it from a police station.

Name: Sang-eun Chae(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 2000s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Trainee nurse
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
“A trip to Pyongyang requires all sorts documents, something like a visa.” – Sang-eun Chae
Once I traveled from Hyesan in Ryanggang Province to Pochon County. I didn’t need a travel certificate on the way there. Probably it was because they belong to the same Ryanggang Province. You can walk or drive there. However, travel between provinces requires a certificate. There are military posts on the way with soldiers guarding them. They would check the inside of your car for anything suspicious before letting you go. I lived in Hyesan but never went to Pyongyang. A trip to Pyongyang requires all sorts of documents, something like a visa. You need to get all those papers, and buying a way into Pyongyang is much more expensive.

Name: Sae-rom Kim(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Mundok County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Retailer/Confidential informant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
“People in general don’t travel around much between regions, so they know little about the procedure of getting a certificate.” – Sae-rom Kim
It’s important to be on good terms with people like the security agent in charge or police officers. It’s especially important for people like me who do business. You need to get a travel certificate to go to another region and good personal connections make things much easier. In South Korea, you can go anywhere as long as you have money, can’t you? In North Korea, you have to have a travel certificate. People in general don’t travel around much between regions, so they know little about the procedure of getting a certificate. You need to go through a long process of the office, the regional leader, the security agent in charge, etc. Bribery can get things done in an instant, of course, but things are complicated without it.

Name: Jang-hyuk Lee(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Worker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017
“You need a ticket to get on the train, and you need a certificate to get a ticket. Most people don’t have a certificate, so they don’t have a ticket.” – Jang-hyuk Lee
I used to work as a train inspector. In North Korea, you need a travel certificate to travel. Without it, you can’t go anywhere. You need a ticket to get on the train, and you need a certificate to get a ticket. Most people don’t have a certificate, so they don’t have a ticket. That’s why people take a free ride. My job was to catch those people. I take them to a room and write a report. I tell them ‘Your fine is this much’ and receive that amount on the spot. I write them a receipt and let them go. But, there wasn’t a specific rule on the fine. The amount I called out was different at times, depending on my judgment. Part of the collected fine was sent to the state, and another part went into the inspector’s pocket.

Name: Kang-cheol Ahn(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Smuggler
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019
“When I lived in the North, I couldn’t go to another region beyond my town just for fun.” – Kang-cheol Ahn
I’ve settled down in South Korea for only less than a year, but I’ve felt different a lot. First of all, I feel comfortable. I get my freedom as long as I do my work. I feel what the word ‘freedom’ means. I like the way I can freely go out for leisure when I want to. I also like that there is no place or person calling me after work. As long as I do my job, I can drink, I can sleep as long as I want, I can go to see a friend, and I can go out for a drive. I can go around freely and my life is so much more comfortable. When I lived in the North, I couldn’t go to another region beyond my town just for fun. The transportation was inconvenient and there was no freedom to go around places. There is no freedom of movement in North Korea.

Name: Kyeong-ah Jang(pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1980s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Smuggler
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2020
“But inspections became stricter due to COIVD-19, and they demand certificates. She said that COVID-19 has made everything somewhat more complicated than before.” – Kyeong-ah Jang
I have an acquaintance that made the way to South Korea together. I heard this story from her in October 2020. She tried to make a phone call to her husband who lives in Pochon in North Korea. The plan was to tell her husband to get near to Hyesan area and attempt the call. It failed, because now (October 2020), going to other places without a travel certificate has become impossible. It was just normal to drive between Pochon and Hyesan without a certificate. I mean, they are only about 25km apart and both are parts of the same province. But inspections became stricter due to COViD-19, and they demand certificates. She said that COVID-19 has made everything somewhat more complicated than before.

Elections in North Korea

Name: Yong-sang Cho(pseudonym) 

Year of Birth: 1960s


Gender:Male


Hometown: Rason City, North Korea

Occupation in North Korea: Worked for the People’s Committee in Rason


Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017 

In North Korea, you have to vote for the candidate whose photograph and name are hung on the walls outside the polling station. A negative vote will lead your way to a political prison camp. All the candidates are selected by the Party. In North Korea, there are elections for People’s Assemblies in each province, city, and neighborhood, just like in South Korea. But in reality, it is just being forced to vote for a person who has his seat arranged in advance. 

The voting is held in a place like a big conference room. You can enter it after showing your ID. There are curtains drawn and near the exit is the ballot box. What is ridiculous is that there is a person standing next to the box and he can see my voting paper. In other words, I can’t make a negative vote, because he can see all of it. You simply vote yes, bow in front of the portrait of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il before you leave, and that’s it. You can’t disprove, and if you do so, you will get handcuffed and taken away the moment you step outside the polling station. So, no one dares to do it. 

There isn’t actually a rule against casting negative votes. But I think that is due to the culture. People can’t even imagine standing against the Party in North Korea. It is the same as choosing one’s own death. That’s why going to a polling station makes people so nervous and makes their hair stand on end. There are often people making mistakes due to that. I once saw one person getting so tense that he put his ID in the voting box with the voting paper. The cadres swore badly at him. 

Name: Yang-ok Kye(pseudonym) Year of Birth: 1950s

Gender: Female

Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea

Occupation in North Korea: Leader of the People’s unit

Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

In North Korea, people don’t know a thing about who the deputy candidates for the SPA are, and the provincial People’s Assembly. They also don’t know how they became the candidates. It just happens that about a month before the election day, papers are put up on walls. They have the candidate’s photograph, personal details, and career history. He is the one you must vote for. It really isn’t an election, because there is no other person to elect, but it is called an election nonetheless. In North Korea, an election does not mean you vote for the person you want. The state has chosen a specific person. So, being a candidate doesn’t mean very much.

I came to South Korea and went to vote. I found out that I simply had to stamp a mark next to a person I wanted to win. Further, it was up to me to stamp or not at all. That doesn’t happen in North Korea. First, I stand in a long line and then enter. There, I show my ID and get a voting paper. For ordinary people like me, I don’t even get a chance to look at it properly. I receive the paper, put the paper into the ballot box behind a white curtain, and that’s it. There is no process like in South Korea where you check the paper and make a mark next to your candidate. In North Korea, I put the voting paper I received into the box and leave. Then my voting is done.

I was the leader of my people’s unit for over 10 years. The leader ticks names on the voter registration list who went to vote and who didn’t. If one of those on the list doesn’t vote, then they are in big trouble. They will be dragged to the Ministry of State Security or something like that. You must vote. If you don’t, then it is regarded as a sign that you refused because you disagree with the Party’s policy. So, everyone has to vote without question, and they are made to do so.

Name: Han-sun Ham(pseudonym)

Year of Birth: 1960s

Gender: Female

Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea

Occupation in North Korea: Housewife Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

I voted in the election for the Supreme People’s Assembly in March 2019 in North Korea. At the polling station, you are given a voting paper. There is the name of the candidate you are supposed to vote for written on it. Just one, just that single candidate’s name. After I arrived in South Korea, I voted once and I found out that there were multiple names on the paper, and I was to vote for the one I liked. That is not the case in North Korea. There is one deputy candidate in one region. If his photograph is put up on the wall, people must vote for that man.

During the voting process, there is nothing you can choose. You receive the paper and put it in the voting box as it is, and that’s the end. Of course, they tell you to mark “X” on the paper if you disapprove. But as far as I know, no one does that, because they will come and get you. There are partition walls in the voting place so that people can’t see what you are doing from outside. You can mark “X” if you insist, but people never do that. It’s voting without any choice. You get the paper, put the paper in the box and that’s it. You don’t fold it. The paper goes in the box flat.

If you don’t vote because you don’t want to participate, then that is treason. You neither vote because you want to nor don’t vote because you don’t want to. Whatever it is, if it’s called an “election”, then all must participate. The idea “Everyone must vote in an election,” is rooted in people’s heads. You can’t simply choose not to vote because you don’t want to do it. You will get caught.

Name: Noh-lan Kang(pseudonym) Year of Birth: 1960s

Gender: Female

Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea

Occupation in North Korea: Housewife Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2016

On the election day, when you enter the polling station you will see a portrait of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. You must bow before the portrait. And you will get a voting paper with the name of the deputy candidate on it. There are two boxes in the station. One for “yes” and one for “no”. A person working there will sort of tell you which box to put the paper in. You put the paper in the yes-box. One might get confused and choose the other box, so the person says something like “the one on the right, for yes”. Then the confusion is over, and the right box is selected. There is no need to mark anything on the paper.

Even if there were negative votes, it is not made public. The state simply publicizes that all votes were affirmative. If one does cast a negative vote, they will be on the close-surveillance list of the police officer or intelligence officer in charge. So, who will dare express “no” in this situation? In fact, there is no right to choose by one’s own will in the election.

Name: Bo-hee Kim(pseudonym)

Year of Birth: 1960s

Gender: Female

Hometown: Chongjin City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea

Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed; Disabled soldier

Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017

Elections in North Korea are mandatory. If one doesn’t vote, that is regarded as treason. So, on the election day, everybody, I mean 100%, goes to vote. You have to dress up neatly when you go to a polling station. You stand at attention and vote, even if your legs are uncomfortable. You don’t hold the voting paper with one hand—with both hands, always. If you put the paper in the box with one hand, or your attitude seems bad in any way, the cadres there will call you out to a separate place and scold you. They will roast you with words like “Why did you put in the paper like that,” “I somehow question your ideology”, or “Do you find voting disagreeable?” So people behave themselves in very good manners in the station. They follow the exact directions given by the cadres. “Enter, make a few steps forward, bow before the portrait of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, then do this and that,” for example.

I went through the voting process in South Korea. Here, the list of candidate names was on the paper and I stamped next to the one I approved. That is not the case in North Korea. I write down the name of the person I vote for. I leave my own handwritten words there. When there is an election for deputies for the Supreme People’s Assembly, there are a few candidates, like in South Korea. I write down just one name, among those of many candidates. For example, if John Smith is a candidate, then I write down “John Smith” on the paper. Then I put the paper in the box. But to recall the last time I voted in North Korea, I remember that on the voting paper, there were a “yes” box and a “no” box printed on it. If you approved, then you ticked “yes”, and if you didn’t you marked “X” in the “no” box.

There are no partition walls in the polling station. That doesn’t mean that voting is done in public. There is a distance between people. You go into a separate booth in South Korea, don’t you? It is not that private in North Korea, but each voting area in the polling station is placed with about a 2m gap in between. So the other person can’t see very well what I write down. Not even the cadres in charge of the station can.

The use of narcotics and drugs in North Korea

Name: Cheol Kang (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pochon County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Served in the Dolgyeokdae (military-style construction youth brigades)
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

It may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but I would say 8 out of 10 adults do drugs. People around me did a lot. In Ryanggang, where I lived, opium is common. In North Hamgyong, bingdu (methamphetamine) is popular. The police often crack down on users. In North Korea, opium is the best medicine. It works best as a treatment. The pain goes away in no time. People regard it as common sense that opium can cure anything. Even if you get caught during a police crackdown, they will leave without saying a word if you insist that ‘this drug is absolutely necessary.’ That tells you how common opium use is in households. People grow poppy fields in the mountains where people don’t often go if there is enough sunlight. They made opium themselves like that. Then they sold it to other people or took it themselves. People work in state-run companies or factories but are not getting paid, so they turn to all sorts of things to survive— even to selling drug. People often do drugs with their friends. They meet in the evening for a card game and then bingdu or opium soon follows. North Korean people do opium like people drink alcohol in other countries. Generally speaking, people begin using drugs around the age of 20. I think people over 25 in particular do it a lot.

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Name: Sun-sil La (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Garment cutter
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

The use of drugs in North Korea can’t be stopped now. The hardship in people’s lives has led to their dependence on drugs. Even if you get caught by the police but explain that the drugs are for medical treatment, for example, to treat a concussion, and if you do have those symptoms, they let you go. It is okay to do opium or bingdu if it’s as a medical treatment. In North Korea, narcotics are regarded as a kind of medication. You take opium for colds. You take opium or bingdu when you get hurt. You do drugs even when you’re tired from overworking. Drugs are prevalent. Generally speaking, one apartment building counts as one People’s Unit. The Unit I belonged to consisted of 30 households, and 4~5 of them sold drugs. If 4~5 out of 30 households sold drugs, then how many are out there using it? The word ‘everyone’ would not be an exaggeration. Further, law enforcement officers and other staff working at legal institutions, in other words, police officers and security agents of the Ministry of State Security do more drugs than ordinary people.

————

Name: Min-song Lee (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Librarian
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

People in Hyesan were doing a lot of bingdu even at the time I came to South Korea. Of course, poor people don’t think of doing it. But everyone, and I mean everyone, who had money to spare did it. For example, I’d go to my friend’s house and we’d do it together. It was just like a middle-class host offering tea or coffee to guests visiting their home. Bingdu was very expensive in the past. But the price went down as it became more popular. With money, anyone can get it from all sorts of places. In North Korea, narcotics are often used as medicine. Bingdu really works as a treatment. When one has a brain hemorrhage and his tongue and mouth suffer paralysis, bingdu fixes it right away. People who have their own small fields at home usually grow opium. There is a shortage of medical drugs so people regard opium as a panacea. I planted poppies in the backyard and made opium myself. I kept it in my home and used it when I was sick. People use it for colds and things like that. Opium is an easily accessible panacea. They can’t buy medical drugs because they are too expensive, so they try to treat themselves with homemade opium. Those who become addicted to opium from too much use end up collapsing or having a seizure if they don’t do it again at the right time. Opium addiction is very serious. Those addicts end up as what people call ‘space heads’. They are off their head and act without sense. Opium wipes you out, while bingdu wakes you up.

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Name: Hak-jae Cha (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed; disabled soldier
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

I did a lot of bingdu. 70~80% of adults all do it. Not only elementary schoolers but even younger kids do drugs, too. They don’t’ buy drugs themselves, but they see their parents doing it at home and do the same. They don’t know whether it’s good or bad for them. They’re just curious. Children know where their parents put away the tools to smoke bingdu. So when the parents are out, the children mimic what they’ve seen. You light bingdu and smoke it. It’s become so common that even kids do it. The state imposes strict regulations on drugs, but even if one gets caught, bribery can solve the problem. People who sell hundreds of grams of drugs get light punishments —a couple of months in a disciplinary labor center. Hamhung, Chongjin, and Wonsan are three major places where bingdu is made. I heard it was also made in Pyongyang and in the Sangwon area in the past, but what I used was mostly from Hamhung.

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Name: Jin-kyoung Cho (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1990s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Unemployed
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

People do a lot of opium and bingdu. As far as I know, people in Hoeryong do them a lot. Ordinary people can access drugs easily. It’s difficult to say exactly what percentage of the population does drugs. That’s because people living in the countryside and people doing business in towns have different opportunities. Farmers can’t get bingdu that easily. For a poor farm member, bingdu is expensive. But those who do business in cities have more money than them, so they use it more. It’s easy to get bingdu itself. Anyone with money can buy it if they want to. Most of it is made in Hamhung and is circulated throughout the country. I heard that 40% of Hamhung people know how to make it. bI think the drug problem in North Korea is really serious. You get addicted to bingdu. Once you’re addicted, then the family breaks apart. You want to do bingdu but you haven’t got enough money. Then you begin to sell stuff in the house. I’ve seen many cases of family breakups like that in my area. And many young people do bingdu too. They do it after their parents. The state sometimes punishes those who sell drugs but does not educate people about their harms and side effects. That’s because if they tell people publicly, they are openly telling the international community how serious the drug problem is in North Korea. They just quietly tell people not to do it. Medical treatments and protection for addicts or education on side effects mean that the country is admitting the active and common use of drugs in the state. They want to hide that fact, so they don’t educate people.

No COVID-19 cases?

Two medical professionals tell their story

North Korea is one of the few countries that has reported “no cases” of COVID-19 infection, and last week leader Kim Jong Un heralded the government’s “shining success” in dealing with the pandemic. The country closed its borders to all foreign visitors in late January, just as it did when faced with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2015. Little is known about how the health care system is run in North Korea, but its apparent ability to escape COVID-19 makes it worth digging deeper into its public health system. Amnesty International has spoken to two North Korean health care professionals now living and working in South Korea. *Kim is a practitioner of Korean medicine, while *Lee is a pharmacist. Both women believe North Korea has a certain “immunity” to epidemics, but there are also factors which make the country’s health care system particularly vulnerable.

“As North Korea has been suffering under incessant epidemics, people have built ‘mental immunity’ against them, and are able to deal with them without major fear. This is the same for COVID-19,” Lee said. “Not that they are immune biologically, but the continuous years of epidemics have made them insensitive.” She cites outbreaks of scabies and measles in 1989, and the recurrence of cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid and typhus since 1994. After 2000, SARS, Ebola, avian influenza and MERS also threatened North Korea. However, the fact that no cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the outside world could be connected to surveillance and drastic curbs on freedom of expression at the hands of the authorities. “North Koreans are well aware that when making contact with family or friends living in South Korea, there is always a chance that they are being wiretapped. So phone calls and letters are usually made under the premise that someone might be listening to or reading their conversations. They will never say a word related to COVID-19, as this can cost their lives,” said Lee. Ensuring adequate sanitation and affordable care for all North Korea’s food crisis in the 1990s, known as the Arduous March, caused fundamental changes in its health system. As Lee explains, “Before the Arduous March, the medical professionals were devoted to their work. Like what the slogans say, ‘A patient’s pain is my pain,’ ‘Treat patients like family.’ But with the economic crisis, the state stopped giving salaries or rations, and survival became the most urgent task. Medical professionals had to get realistic and all those good systems were put aside.” The result of these changes was effectively a health system based on payments existing alongside the “free” health services. According to Lee, the state opened pharmacies outside hospitals and made people buy drugs with money. Many people still do not enjoy the right to an adequate standard of living, which covers such areas as adequate food, water, sanitation, housing and health care. But an emerging middle class has started to change the way in which scarce health resources are allocated, and made it even more difficult for poorer communities to access adequate health care. “Free medical care still exists, nominally, so hospitals don’t charge that much. But some people have recently become willing to pay money for better treatment,” says Kim. “In South Korea, as long as you pay, you get to choose the hospital and the method of treatment. But in the North, you don’t have that choice. ‘You live in district A, so you are to go to hospital B,’ is all there is. Nowadays, people wish to go to the hospital that they choose and see a doctor they want, even at extra cost. In the past, doctors only had to look after patients within their assigned area. Regardless of the number of patients, they received a constant salary from the hospital, so there was no need for exceptionalism. Now the patients are bringing money, and this is changing the motivations of health care professionals.” North Koreans, like everyone, have the right to the highest attainable level of health care. While this does not mean all health care has to be free, the emergence of these unregulated payments does call to question whether health care remains affordable to all or not. The international community and the right to health in North Korea Lee and Kim believe that medical training in North Korea is of a high standard and medical professionals are committed to their patients, but one significant bottleneck has been the lack of materials to keep the system running, in part due to sanctions imposed by the international community. “This humanitarian support comes and goes depending on inter-Korean politics. I personally hope there is steady support from the international community, for example on drugs used to treat tuberculosis, regardless of the political situation,” says Kim. “Much-needed ingredients are entirely procured through imports, but most of them are on the international community and America’s sanction lists.” Lee agrees: “The international community therefore has lessons to learn in ensuring the right to health of individuals in North Korea, in terms of making access to health care more equitable to all people in society. Economic sanctions must not be applied in a way that would compromise the rights of North Koreans, and arrangements must be put in place to make essential medicines and other health-related items available to people who need them. Restrictions on these goods should never be used as an instrument of political and economic pressure. International cooperation in nutrition, water and sanitation is also needed to ensure that North Korea is prepared against future epidemics such as COVID-19. Such epidemics may result from diseases related to unclean food and water, and could more readily affect people who already suffer from poor nutrition. The North Korean government, on the other hand, has the responsibility to ensure that items provided for humanitarian causes are used for their intended purposes free of charge, and not diverted for personal gain. The authorities must fully cooperate with any providers of humanitarian aid, granting them rights of access to all sites where humanitarian operations are taking place, so it can be verified that help is indeed reaching people that are genuinely in need.”
*To protect the identities of these individuals, we are only identifying them by their last names.

Name: Hye-ok Ban (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Mobile Phone Broker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“Not only in Musan, I haven’t heard about serious problems getting food in other regions either.” – Hye-ok Ban

I heard on the news about the arrival of the ‘Second Arduous March’ — that is not true. I sometimes make a phone call to an acquaintance in North Korea and hear the news. In Musan where I lived, the price of rice hasn’t gone up that much.Not only in Musan, I haven’t heard about serious problems getting food in other regions either. Of course, those who manage to talk on the phone with people in South Korea are relatively well-to-do. Maybe it’s because I talk only to those people, but I haven’t heard that the food problem is making their lives unbearable. Recently I asked one person what life was like in general. He said, “Nothing special. It’s the same as then (in 2019).” But he did tell me that the price of medical drugs (syringes, etc.), and of food seasonings have gone up a lot.

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Name: Yong-sam Chae (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Rason Special City, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Civil servant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017

“The charge was for having South Korean publications.” – Yong-sam Chae

I lived in Rason Special City. I’ve seen public executions three or four times in my life, but not recently. Once, we went on a field trip to Onsong County in North Hamgyong Province. There was a battlefield where Kim Il-sung fought during his revolution. I and other students were directed to attend the execution. Two people were killed that day. Not only us, the students, but the whole village came out to see. The prisoners were each tied on a stake and shot to death by automatic rifle. They were bound by the neck, chest, and legs. Three gunners came up. Each shot three times. With the first shot, the rope around the neck was cut off and their heads dropped. The next shot cut off the rope around the chest and their bodies bent forward. The final shot at the rope around their legs made them fall flat on the ground. The gunners were so skillful that they hit the ropes every single time. The dead bodies were rolled up with a straw mat, together with the stakes, loaded on a truck, and were sent somewhere. It’s been several decades since it happened, but the image is still vivid. But I can’t remember what their charges were. I was too young. And I saw a hanging once. A long time ago, in Rajin-guyok, Rason Special City, thousands of people gathered to see a public execution. The charge was for having South Korean publications. Recently I haven’t seen a public execution in person. I recall that until the early 2000s, there were a lot. At that time, people were executed in public for stealing one or two sacks of corn. In Rason where I lived, there were much fewer public executions for a reason. Rason was designated as a free economic zone in the 1990s which brought in many foreigners. I heard that the authorities were reluctant to have public executions, as there were many eyes from the outside. They were aware that foreigners were watching. As far as I heard, they took the prisoners for public executions to other regions and did what they did. In any case, there are public executions even today.  

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Name: Sin-hwa Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Mundok County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Secret informant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“It was unspeakably cruel.” – Sin-hwa Kim

I was born and raised in Mundok County, South Pyongan Province. In the late 2000s, a public execution took place where I lived. There was a high-ranking cadre of the Party in the region who lived a life of debauchery with his accumulated wealth. He was charged with some other crime, dragged to a plaza in Pyongsong City, and shot. It was a public execution. I happened to witness the scene by chance. It was unspeakably cruel. I try to tell people about this every time I get a chance, but it is truly an atrocious scene to describe. Pyongsong Market is very large. It’s a place where merchants from regions all over the country come and meet. The authorities took all the people in the market to the site of the execution. As the convict was a high-ranking cadre, other cadres were ushered to the front row. Behind them, people sat in hierarchical order. A machine gun fired 90 bullets at the convict as a demonstration. I saw it from afar, but I could see the body breaking and melting down as if he was shedding his skin. Someone I knew saw it from the front and he nearly fainted at the cruelty of it. He couldn’t sleep for days. Those who worked with the convict had to see it in the front row. The plaza was crowded with around 2,000 people. After seeing the execution, the cadres of the same rank as the executed man might have felt bad in their hearts that he had to die like that. But from the perspective of an ordinary person like me, ‘The world is a better place without a selfish person like him.’ Many others said the same thing. North Korea is a communist country. The general idea is ‘We live well together’. Selfish greed for wealth is seen as a bad thing. So people thought it was good that he was shot as an example. At that time, rather than being sacred, it was actually gratifying to see that bastard being killed. That was what I felt then. At that moment, I didn’t imagine I could be in the shoes of the convict. I only thought that those rogues deserved to die. But my thoughts have changed since leaving North Korea. I learned that human lives are valuable. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, there were many public executions when Kim Jong-il was alive. But since Kim Jong-un, it has become difficult to see them. I could easily get access to various sources of information. My job was to watch the inhabitants and deliver information to a state institution. There wasn’t a public execution in the area where I lived. But I believe it doesn’t mean there were fewer executions taking place.

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Name: Hyung-sook Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Accountant
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“I saw and heard a lot about public executions.” – Hyung-sook Kim

I’m from Hyesan. When I lived in North Korea, I saw and heard a lot about public executions. In the North, there are still public executions taking place. The state gathers everyone at the site. They announce that so-and-so is to be tried and executed, followed the charges and the time and date of the execution. It is not mandatory to attend. You don’t have to go, but the state does tell you to go. They don’t think people will commit crimes after witnessing an execution. I often stayed behind because I didn’t want to see it. At the execution site, the prisoner — whose execution has already been determined inside the system — is tried first in a public trial. After the death sentence is handed down, the execution follows immediately after. He is shot to death. I haven’t seen one in person recently, but I’ve heard that they are still taking place. I heard public executions took place in 2017 and also in 2018, in Hyesan where I lived. There is an airfield in Hyesan, somewhat far away from the city. It wasn’t really an airfield as there were no planes using it. It was just a wide, vacant space. Public executions took place there often as it was suitable for mass gatherings and shooting from afar. Then, at the time I was about to leave North Korea, a rumour spread around our town. Apparently they were telling prisoners, ‘You aren’t worth a bullet’ and beating them to death in the detention facility, in order to save bullets. People were not being openly shot, but rather being quietly beaten to death. One execution costs about as much as 10 bullets. The state thinks the bullets are wasteful so they order the prisoners to be beaten to death. There was a guy I knew in our town. He was a broker who transferred money between the South and the North. He was caught and sent to a re-education camp. I heard news that he was imprisoned for over three years before he was beaten to death. The North Korean authorities feel no guilt over beating people to death. Life is not valued in North Korea. Those working in the investigation unit will beat people without a second thought. The guy I knew surely wasn’t the only victim. You have no idea how many others, people whom I don’t know, were also beaten to death. This usually takes place in detention facilities.

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Name: Su-young Cho (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Smuggler
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“The phrase they used was ‘to kick’, meaning beating the convict to death.” – Su-young Cho

I was born in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province. I lived there all my life until I left North Korea. I witnessed public executions until 1995. After that, I never went to see one in person. In the 1990s, there were many public executions. But now, they rarely take place. Instead, they are carried out inside detention facilities. I mean that people who are sentenced to death are killed inside these facilities. These closed-door executions inside detention facilities are happening even now. Shortly before I left North Korea, I was kept for a few months in a detention facility operated by the Ministry of State Security. I and a woman charged for murder shared a cell. In the end, she was tried and was sentenced to death. She was dragged out of the cell on the day of execution and never came back. Recently, the executions within the facilities are not done by gunshots. When I was kept in a detention facility under the Ministry of Social Security (the police), I heard the officers talking about it. The phrase they used was ‘to kick’, meaning beating the convict to death. There were some professional ‘kickers’ among prison guards. The police would get them drunk and order them to beat the convict to his death. Alcohol was needed because they couldn’t do it in a sober state of mind. The dead body was dragged outside the facility and simply buried in the ground. I don’t know much about detention facilities of the Ministry of State Security, but this was the way it was done in the Ministry of Social Security. I also don’t know the details on how the former treats those who have committed felonies, but they usually send them to political prison camps.

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Name: Sun-hwa Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Garment worker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“I lived in Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province. I left North Korea in early 2019 and came to South Korea. After graduating from high school, I was placed in a factory that made clothes and worked there for more than 10 years. In North Korea, the state assigns people to workplaces. So people have no right to choose which work they do. Basically, all factories and companies in North Korea are owned by the state. When I worked at the factory, there were about 70 workers, most of them women. Now only about 20 are working, because much of the factory operations have shut down. There are not enough materials and resources to run it. Other factories are all in a similar situation. I worked, but I was paid very little. A whole month’s work earned me about one US dollar. That was close to receiving zero. I could only buy one kilogram of rice with it. Even so, I thought the workplace was okay. At least I could sit on a chair while working. In North Korea, you have to work at the assigned factory whether you are paid or not. So, at least it was better to work where I was physically more comfortable. But the thing was, there wasn’t much to do because there wasn’t enough supply of materials or resources to run the factory. At that time, when there was no work, the state sent us to other places besides factories and made us work there. This was called mobilization. We were mobilized to work on road construction and rail construction, and in winter, logging in the mountains. This work was extra to what we did at the assigned workplace. It was difficult to live in North Korea with so many other forms of forced labour. We were often mobilized on Sundays, not to mention Saturdays. We worked at our workplace, we were mobilized, but we weren’t paid. It wasn’t just me. It was the same for everyone. In North Korea, you go to work but you are not paid. On the contrary, employees have to give money to their workplaces. The factory demanded that the employees provide materials or give money to run the factory so that it could meet the task assigned by the state. So when you go to work, you can’t make ends meet. You actually get poorer. All workplaces nag you for money every day.  Some workers bribe their director so they don’t have to go to work for a certain amount of time. For example, a worker makes a deal with the director of the factory. He will pay a certain amount of money and he will be exempt from work for a year. During that time, he can do other things he wants to do, be it business, smuggling, or farming, to make money. In this way, people did other jobs to maintain their livelihoods. The state often calls a few from each workplace to work for national construction projects. They are called Dolgyeokdae: temporary group organized to meet special needs such as work on construction projects. Once designated as a member of Dolgyeokdae, you have to leave your home, live together with other members at the construction site, and work for 3~6 months. A few from this factory and a few from that factory would work for some months in turns. People hate to be assigned to a Dolgyeokdae as they had to leave their homes for months of hard labour. During the months of Dolgyeokdae, you have to pay for your own food and accommodation. Even though the state forces you to work, it doesn’t properly supply the materials and equipment needed for the work. You have to take your own tools for the construction work. The work at Dolgyeokdae is backbreaking, and for that you receive nothing. So people with money often avoid becoming a Dolgyeokdae by paying bribes to the head. North Korean people do not receive rewards for their labour either at the workplace or for mobilization. Even if they go to work, they have to find another way to live. People’s lives are miserable because they don’t receive fair reward for their work. I know that many who are not North Koreans are even envious that North Korean people don’t have to worry about their employment, since the state gives you work. The reality is that you are forced to work at a given place without pay. North Korean people are literally under forced labour, every day and for the rest of their lives. I think guaranteeing labour rights is very important in ensuring people can have a decent life.”

Name: Myong-han Lee (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pyongyang, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Overseas worker in Kuwait
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 1997

“Pyongyang is my hometown. I was born, raised, and worked there all my life. On the 6th of November 1996, I was on a plane from Pyongyang to Kuwait in a group of 20 or so labourers who were selected to be sent abroad. I worked for about five months in Kuwait, until March 1997. Then I left and came to South Korea. We woke up at 5 a.m., began working on-site at 8. The work was supposed to end by 7pm. But this time was kept only one or two days in a week. On the other days, we had to work later hours. After dinner, we went back to the site, worked from 8pm until the morning. It was like that for 7 days a week, without weekends or days off. After a short amount of sleep, we had to wake up and drag our bodies to work yet again. As far as I know, the law in Kuwait doesn’t allow such long working hours, but it didn’t apply to us. Every day, the North Korean cadres coerced the workers into working, saying “Let us faithfully work and bring joy to our General (Kim Jong-il)”. Literally political propaganda, that was. It might be difficult for people from other countries to understand, but no one in North Korea says a word against it. I never received wages during my five months in Kuwait. The North Korean company I belonged to was a private business on the surface, but was in fact under the Worker’s Party, in other words, state-owned. So, the company sent all the money we earned to the party. At least they should have set aside some for us who actually did the work… Once I had a chance to talk to a foreign worker from a different country. With broken English and body language, I asked him a question in my mind, “We work our asses off. Why aren’t we getting paid?” He said he didn’t know. Then I asked, “They are supposed to give us 120 US dollars per month, but we are getting zero. How much do you get paid?” He said 650 dollars. After hearing that, I became curious. Surely our company must be also receiving money from our work, around 650 dollars per person?  What was strange at the time was that there was barbed wire around the site where North Korean workers worked. On sites where other foreigners worked, there was no barbed wire. It was only on ours. Out of curiosity, I asked the interpreter of our company “What is the meaning of this barbed wire?” The interpreter replied, “There are hundreds of multinational companies in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti law stipulates that barbed wire should be installed on sites where foreign workers worked.” I believed that. Then, when I told about this to a person in the South Korean embassy after I escaped the site, he laughed and said it was nonsense and that there were no such laws in this country. After all, the wire was put up by the North Korean authorities. They did that to prevent anyone escaping, and Kuwait allowed that because they are concerned about illegal stay issues. When people hear ‘human rights in North Korea’ they think of physical beating or torture. During my time in Kuwait, I didn’t experience that. But what I experienced was labour exploitation—literally. The level of labour exploitation was simply insane: not being paid a penny for five months of work, 14~15 working hours a day without a proper day off. But at the time, I didn’t know that it was a human rights violation. I heard the term ‘human rights’ for the first time in South Korea. North Korean people don’t know what human rights are, let alone labour rights. Here is what I think: to improve the labour rights in North Korea, North Korean people have to be enlightened first, whether they are home or abroad. Delivering information to them is the way. Turning back the clock, to 25 years ago in Kuwait, I came to realize the unfair working environment I was in because I had contact with other foreign workers. In the same way, I hope North Korean workers abroad are given the chance to come across outside information in various ways. This outside information doesn’t have to be anything special. If it could make them see that their wages and working hours were unfair, that would be enough. They have no way of getting such information. The problem is, most North Korean workers abroad right now would be in a similar situation to what I was in: blocked from accessing information. Otherwise, the authorities wouldn’t be able to control them. On the other hand, if workers abroad can access outside information, one day they will make their voice heard and recover their lost rights.”

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Name: Yeo-ok Kang (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1950s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: President of a neighborhood association
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

But it’s true that the economic situation is serious after COVID-19.”– Yeo-ok Kang

During the Arduous March in the mid to late 1990s, there came a great economic crisis and most people didn’t know how to overcome such hardship. But, now many know the way to live through it. During the Arduous March, people didn’t know a thing about business. The state gave out rationings and people relied only on that. Then, they began doing business for themselves and came to understand how the market economy worked. Now people have shops in marketplaces and invest money to build buildings. These were unimaginable in the past. Kim Jong-un recently said that the food situation in North Korea is as difficult as it was in the Arduous March, but I don’t believe so. My son is in North Korea. When I talk to him on the phone, he says “It’s difficult”, but doesn’t say that there are people starving to death. I can’t talk to him for long, because the Ministry of State Security wiretaps our conversations. During the Arduous March, I often saw dead bodies in front of the station and flies flying around them. I’m certain that the situation is not as bad as that. But it’s true that the economic situation is serious after COVID-19.

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Name: Na-hee Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1970s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Tanchon City, South Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Librarian
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“North Korean people won’t die after COVID-19.”– Na-hee Kim

North Korean people have undergone the Arduous March in the mid-1990s and the currency reform in 2009 which brought great economic confusion and serious side effects. Now, people have mastered the art of survival. North Korean people won’t die after COVID-19. They have their own small lands, and though trade is not possible, domestic distribution channels allow some level of business activity. Of course, consumption and expenditures have gone down after COVID-19. If they had rice, now they have corn, and if things are a bit more unfortunate, they would have porridge. The point is, they will not starve to death. Unlike the past, they now adopted an attitude of self-reliance. Some people—those who lived long in China or left North Korea a long time ago—can say something different about North Korea. But that’s because they don’t know about the latest situation. In any way, North Korean people won’t die of starvation as they did before. From what I heard from an acquaintance in North Korea, even though the borders have been closed for over a year and the authorities are working hard to cut off all smugglings, transactions have begun between China and North Korea, be it small in size and secretive in manner.

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Name: Ji-hyo Jeon (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Nurse
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

“Of course, the situation is bad, but people won’t just sit by idly and die.”– Ji-hyo Jeon

The international community says the current food situation in North Korea is as bad as that during the Arduous March. I think it has a point. That’s because, the state is not producing much rice, and whatever rice that is produced goes to the soldiers first. Ordinary people receive nothing. Smuggling is no longer an option. People live on by relying on their small lands alone. If people hadn’t cultivated the lands, they’d all be dead by now. But at least small lands are functioning as their lifelines. In North Korea, there are no trees in the mountains. All have been turned into small lands. People cleared mountains right up to the top and planted crops. But now is different from the past. During the Arduous March, people starved to death in great numbers. But now, people won’t die like that — I mean not that helplessly. This kind of life continued for so long, that people have become tougher. Now they will take action to survive. Every household grows crops in their small lands. It’s a new way of thinking. In the past, people simply accepted and lived on by rationings from the state. People’s working spirit and energy have become stronger. So I think the current food crisis is serious but not as serious as it was during the Arduous March in the 1990s. Of course, the situation is bad, but people won’t just sit by idly and die.

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Name: Mi-soon Lee (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Smuggler
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2017

“I expect there are people dying of starvation in the North.” – Mi-soon Lee

The borders are closed down due to COVID-19 so people can’t come and go across China. Not only that, rice is not transported from China into North Korea. Control over movement within the country has become stricter, blocking all trade. I heard the price of rice has gone up a lot as a result. For example, when I came to South Korea, one kilo of rice cost 3 Chinese yuan, but now it’s 10. The price of cooking oil has tripled. I expect there are people dying of starvation in the North. People starved to death when I was there. When I came to South Korea, every so often I got the question “Is it true that there isn’t enough rice in North Korea?” They didn’t believe it but the answer was yes. There isn’t much rice in North Korea. For example, my relative lived in a town not far away, and people there barely had one meal a day. Their lives seemed so desperate that I would often think, “How can people live like that? Ah, why do they choose to continue to live in this misery? Wouldn’t it better… to commit suicide?” It’s common to have three meals a day. The problem is there are hardly any calories in the food they eat. Meat rarely comes up on the table. It’s mostly rice with salt. Many people suffer from malnutrition. It’s so difficult to get food in North Korea right now.

“WE WILL NEVER STOP.”

North Korean activists fighting for human rights back home

Ji Cheol-ho and Kim Keon-woo made separate perilous journeys to escape the brutality of daily life in North Korea and in search of a brighter future. It is in Seoul where Cheol-ho, 34, and Keon-woo, 32, first met in 2011. They found common cause in a desire to help people still suffering back home and others who, like them, had sought sanctuary abroad. The two men now dedicate their time working for Now Action for Unity and Human Rights (NAUH), an NGO based in Seoul that campaigns to defend human rights in North Korea and help those who escape. For the past two years, Amnesty has partnered with NAUH.  This culminated with Ji Cheol-ho and Kim Keon-woo addressing diplomats at the UN in Geneva in March 2019 , during a review of North Korea’s dire human rights record.

Here the two activists share their stories:

Kim My family was relatively well-off in North Korea, but we all suffered from the Great Famine in the 1990s. There was no food distribution throughout the six months before my family decided to leave. I was 11 years old when my mum told me, “let’s go to a better place and eat better food,” and we fled in 1998. The plan was to get to our relatives in Dangdong, China, not far from the border. We went across the Tumen river. Many people who try to escape North Korea die along this route. It was August and there was heavy rain. My mother nearly drowned, but the hardest part came when we made it to China. Without legal papers, we were always in danger of being sent back, where we could be sent to a labour camp or even executed. In China, we stayed at home most of the time, where I studied and learned to speak Chinese. When the police visited our home, we had to hide. We ended up staying in China for seven years, because we didn’t know how to get to South Korea. When we finally made it to Seoul through the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai in 2005, I found freedom. I graduated and had a job, but I found myself still struggling to afford food. At 17, I had only grown to 110~120 cm tall. I would eat anything I could get, like tree bark. I began to question if this really was the best a country could do for its people. After my brother and I escaped to China, we split up as we knew that together there was more chance we could be caught. We hoped to see each other again in South Korea but we didn’t know if that would be the last time we saw each other. For 15 days I took many buses and walked through forests as I tried to make it to South Korea through Southeast Asia. Every time someone spoke to me in Chinese, I would just smile and hope for the best. There was so much to process after I arrived in Seoul. My first impression was that it was a cool airport. I remember the fresh air. I was overwhelmed when I was reunited with my brother and mother, who had already made it to South Korea. For my first week in Seoul, I didn’t know what to do with my new-found freedom. I slept for a week. I used my freedom to sleep! Then I decided that I would only say yes to things I wanted to do. I wanted to study. That was freedom. The best thing about living in Seoul was that I was free to go wherever I wanted. In China, there was always the fear of being sent back. In 2011, at university I was introduced to Ji Seong-ho who founded NAUH. It may sound strange, but I didn’t know much about human rights abuses in North Korea. I’d seen two public executions when I lived there, but I was so young when we left, I didn’t know what that meant. Out of curiosity, I went to one of NAUH’s meetings. It was then that I realized that it could have been my family suffering these abuses. To bring positive change, we need to see more pressure from other governments on North Korea. Governments fear the opinion of their people. It is not possible for North Koreans back home to raise their voice now, so please keep speaking out about human rights abuses, so the North Korean government cannot ignore your voices. Thank you to Amnesty supporters for caring about human rights in North Korea. I hope that together we can improve human rights for everyone.

Ji I escaped North Korea in 2006 with my mother and brother, I was 22. Our father was supposed to join us later, but I never saw him again. We were told he was captured, tortured and died in North Korea. Earlier this year, I was able to honour our stories at the United Nations, to hold the North Korea regime to account for its abuses against its people and those seeking a better life. To have that opportunity was very important to me. My life changed in Seoul, but I knew that many people back home were still suffering so I helped set up NAUH in 2010. We started with street campaigns in Seoul about human rights in North Korea and expanded as we grew in resources and supporters. A year later, we started emergency rescues of North Koreans. I help North Koreans in China, particularly women, reach South Korea, and to adjust to their new life. Whenever I meet North Koreans, I see their courage. Back home, I was told that women who leave are the worst. I have a different view now and want to help these women. I talk to them in a North Korean dialect and it makes them feel at home. This is the work I need to do. It is the most precious work and it makes me happy to help them. Our work together culminated in a campaign to the UN in Geneva this past March, where we met with diplomats to talk about human rights. We presented testimonies and research to contribute to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on North Korea. Our report to the UN was on street children in North Korea. The abuses they experience are some of the worst. They have no opportunity to stand up for their rights, so as a human rights activist I wanted to do something to help them. Though human rights abuses are still prevalent in North Korea, efforts like ours remind people of what is going on. We will never stop working towards helping people in North Korea to realize their rights.

Billboard advertising theatre and musical productions. Today arts are tightly controlled by the Government and freedom of artistic expression does not appear to be tolerated.

Early October 2020, Amnesty International Korea (AIK) met 2 North Koreans who escaped North Korea right before the authorities shut down the borders due to COVID-19 and settled in the South.

They described their reasons and the process of leaving and explained in detail the motives of other people. Person A’s words were similar to the recent trend of change in the motives shown in the above-mentioned survey. As the main motive, rather than economic factors, he picked non-economic factors including surveillance, punishments, irrationality, etc. He told that though economic reasons still play an important role in making people leave, non-economic reasons are taking a greater part, compared to the past.

I think recently people are leaving because of oppression. In my view, of course, 70~80% of people go across to China due to economic hardship. North Korea’s economy is in a difficult situation. There is usually no food, and hunger forces people to go to China. Many starve. There aren’t many people like me who just earn money. And many people hate the regime intervening in their work and their lives when what they want is to live on their own, freely. And you have to pay bribery for everything. You give that money you earned by blood and sweat wholly to the people in the judicial institutions. That is hard. I think people now leave for other reasons than poverty, compared to 10 years ago. 10 years ago, the border controls were loose. A lot of people who had family or relatives in South Korea left. But now, more people are enlightened to think that they have to go to South Korea for freedom. But the border controls have become tough, making it difficult to leave. There is no freedom in North Korea. The stress is horrible. I heard there are North Koreans under stress living in South Korea—I am not the case. In the North, my heart was always tense and trembled. Compared to that stress, life in South Korea is incomparable.

Person B also picked non-economic reasons for leaving North Korea. He did not seem to had much difficulty in living. However, he came across various hardships in terms of non-economic aspects and even met a hopeless situation where his entire life of diligence was denied. Then he came to know that the journey to South Korea may be the solution, took a great risk in leaving the state, and successfully made his way unharmed. The following are the words of B on his motive.

I left because I hated the North’s dictatorship. I knew for long that it was a difficult country to live in. At first, I prepared to join the Ministry of State Security (MSS). But my mother’s coming to South Korea made my ‘Songbun’—a people’s classification system according to their degree of loyalty to the regime—bad and my plan was impossible to achieve. I thought it was my fate. I was born in this land so I had to live in this certain way. ‘This is my destiny.’ I believed that I should accept it and make my way through. Then my thoughts changed after my plan to work in the MSS after graduating from university didn’t work out and the time I spent in prison. There were many who were caught in China—mostly from Shenyang, Changchun, and Changbai—and were sent back. They described what South Korea was like. I had heard that South Korea was prosperous but not to that degree. Those who told well about South Korea were those who had lived in China for at least 1-2 years or even several. In China, they had many opportunities to come across South Korean culture via the internet and mobile phones. After hearing about South Korea, my thoughts changed. I had been thinking all was my fate, my destiny: the fact that I couldn’t get the job I wanted, despite serving 10 years in the army and finishing university; the difficulty in keeping my livelihood. But that was not the truth. Since then my eyes were open. Though I had a sense that things were all a bit late, I wanted to make a new challenge in my destiny. I had already been imprisoned by the MSS once. Should I be caught next time, a sentence of more than 15 years was guaranteed as a reoffender. But I wanted to start anew in South Korea even that meant risking my life. In South Korea, isn’t the first offense punished lightly whereas the second offense heavily? It’s the same in North Korea. First offenders are given some slack. Should I be caught in the process of leaving the country and sent to the MSS as a reoffender, a 15-year sentence was for certain. Even if I turned out to be tough enough to survive those 15 years, they wouldn’t just let me go. In either way, I had to bear in mind that the arrest and the second encounter with the MSS meant my death. I accepted that and left. I risked my life. To tell the truth, living in North Korea wasn’t that hard financially. My mother who made her way to South Korea before me sent a large sum from time to time.
There are various types of people. Some leave North Korea because they are oppressed and there is no freedom. Some leave because they are famished. I can’t give statistics in percentages for each type. But I believe people leave because there is a lack of something—whether that something is freedom or the economy. And the state fails to fulfill that lack. In South Korea or other countries, even there is economic hardship due to COVID-19, there is hope—’We will stand again,’ ‘We will overcome this and the economy will become active.’ In North Korea, there isn’t even the energy to think that, let alone hope. If South Koreans thought like North Koreans, they will all have be lying on the ground. But it seems that they have hope in them that the road to overcoming COVID-19 may be long but it has an end. North Koreans have no hope. ‘There will be freedom someday,’ ‘One day, we will eat until our bellies are full,’ ‘I too will eat white rice and wear decent clothes,’—there is no such hope and the future is black. I believe so and others will too. Reasons like ‘no freedom’ or ‘economic difficulties’ for leaving North Korea is only an excuse. I believe people leave because they see no hope. And such things are not easy to make into statistics, are they? Looking at North Korean women, for example, there are more than 200,000 who have crossed the border into China. They leave for reasons of every kind and description: there was no freedom and they were oppressed; they committed a crime and ran away; they were starving and used to be Kotjebis—homeless people or children; they came to sell their bodies; they heard that they could make a lot of money in China but was deceived and sold away to husbands; some among them decided to settle down after a baby is born; they used to live with drug-addict, alcoholic and abusive husbands in the North. How could one classify them into categories and process them into statistics? In my view, generally speaking, people escape North Korea because there is no hope whether of freedom, hunger or food, clothing, and shelter. When I was in China, my only thought was to return to North Korea. My wife and son were there. I worked, sleeping 2 hours a day. Besides my work, I also cooked for the other workers. I made that deal with the boss and was paid an extra 250 Chinese money a day. Despite the income, I felt a strong urge to go back, probably because of my family. Looking at other cases, I brought 4 other people with me into China in 2019. I offered that I would connect them to a line into South Korea but none accepted. They did not know much about South Korea and some even had a very negative image about the country, refusing the offer at once. Anyways, we worked together in China, made some money. Then they wanted to go back to North Korea so I let them. Only people with some education and opened eyes know something about South Korea. Many North Koreans react as if the sky falls when they come across the word ‘South Korea.’ There are still a lot of people like that in the North.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Two interviewees, Person A and B from North Korea testified about the zero-wage labor environment that has become the norm. A, in her late 20s, began her career in Kim Jong-un’s regime.

She told that while working at the place ordered by the state, she received no reward for her labor, and described the recent situation the North Korean laborers are in.

After finishing school, I was put to a company that refined logs. I worked there for about three years. There was no monthly salary or rationings. They don’t say ‘salary (literally ‘monthly-pay’)’ but ‘wage’. I received none while working. That doesn’t exist in North Korea. Not just me. Everyone works for free.

B in her 50s has experience under Kim Il-sung, Kim Jung-il, and Kim Jung-un. She too worked at a designated workplace but did not receive proper rewards for her labor since Kim Jong-un.

At first, I worked at a shoe factory in Hoeryong, for 5~6 years. I received a wage, but that stopped with the Arduous March which took place after Kim Il-sung’s death. Before that, there were rationings and wages. During Kim Jung-il and Kim Jung-un, they didn’t pay me even though I worked. I went to a farm during the Arduous March. It was very difficult to make a living then.

As one can see from B’s words, North Korea did give wages and rationings to laborers at first. Numerous economic reports confirm that until the 1970s, North Korea had been making a solid economic development. There was a time when the North Korean economy surpassed that of the South. However, with the accelerating fall of East Europe after the 80s began radical changes in and out of the country. Especially, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, a great famine well-known as the Arduous March broke out, along with other crises. In short, the government was paralyzed. When the state based on rationings failed to function, people died of starvation. The number of deaths is estimated to be from hundreds of thousands to millions. Around that time, except for a few areas such as Pyongyang, the rationing system disappeared altogether. Laborers now faced a situation in which they received neither wage nor rationings, even if they went to workplaces as the state told and worked as the state ordered. They had to find their own way. To survive, they had to find food and tried to get the necessities by selling whatever they could spare. In the process, the capitalistic market economy began to stride into North Korean society. Marketplaces, a form of market where sellers and buyers exchange goods under the arrangement made between themselves, began to form and soon spread across the entire country. Marketplaces brought a new change in the country where private property was not acknowledged. Of course, long before the appearance of marketplaces there existed traditional markets called ‘farmers’ market’ in rural areas where people traded goods. But these were very limited. For a while, the authorities forbade and made strict control over marketplaces, alarmed at their rapid growth, but now they acquiesce. People began to earn money to eat and to survive. Goods were bought and sold, and labor was supplied and used. Capitalization took place in every area of society. Some did farming after work or while not going to work. Some did business, smuggled, or worked in other jobs. They could manage to survive in the harsh environment. But some failed to adapt to the change and disappeared. A told about the changes in North Korea she experienced.

I was young then, so I did not experience it fully. But I heard that in the 70s, during Kim Il-sung, there were wages and rationings, and the shops were full of sweets. Then after his death and with the Arduous March, things became difficult. I was about 10 then, but I could not go to school. There was no rice, nothing to farm, and nothing from the country. We lived on mugwort rice cakes. I don’t know whether you know about nut pines. We peeled its skin, boiled it, and mixed it with others, and made rice cakes. From that period, people’s lives were impacted. Those who did not like to work or lazy all starved to death.

B was a laborer. But as she could no longer receive wage and rationing, she volunteered to become a member of a collective farm. She thought at least that might take care of her hunger.

It’s difficult to move to a regular job from a farm. But the other way is easy. It’s much harder to work as a member of a farm. But at least I could eat during that time… It was Arduous March. People starved to death. There was no rationing at all. So that period is also called ‘non-supply.’ I worked there until my children grew up. In North Korea, kids graduate school at the age of 17 or 18. I feared that my children might be picked as farm members since I was one, even though I wasn’t at first. I made an excuse that my daughter can’t be a farm member because she is about to get married. To prove that, one needs a workplace certificate of the future husband. I bought one, made her way out of the farm, and told her to do business. At that time, I quit farming and began to do business too.

It is ironic that laborers must go to the designated workplaces without question, even though there are no wages or rationings. They come to work even if the factory or company has stopped due to lack of supplies and there is nothing particular to do. They may sit down and kill their time or may be called to another labor site, but they must show up. Arbitrary absence might have one sent to disciplinary labor. Various tricks have come up to avoid going to work. Some even pay the company to have their names checked as attended. During those free hours, they would do other economic activities such as business or farming a small patch of land. They are called ‘8·3 Laborers.’ Even if one shows up and works, there is no proper reward, causing a fall in enthusiasm. Some people simply fill their time at the workplace and as soon as they finish the working hours, they help the family’s economic activities or do their own. The workplace, well aware of the laborers’ situations, finds it difficult to control their deviance. It is nearly impossible to expect proper rewards for labor at state-given workplaces. A described her life as a laborer in North Korea.

Basically, people like us just have to do separate farming there. I would go to work, get some slacks of time, and plant potatoes. I usually asked the leader ‘‘Give me two days, will you?” The leader knows that we all do farming to feed ourselves, so he lets us take turns to farm the small piece of land. Today may be my turn and tomorrow his and so on. So, for example, I will receive five days to farm. There was no need to pay money to the workplace to get the time. That would’ve been nonsense. I work for free anyway… People do it because the state tells us so or they shove us in the disciplinary camp. We work nominally because otherwise, things get messy. We worked when there was work, and when there was no work people rested. Even so, we had to show up every day. In North Korea, you have to work from Monday to Saturday. You get one day’s rest on Sunday. You go to work by 7:30, work until 11, and have lunch for two hours.

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7. Januar 2024