SEATTLE — At the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was split in two, with the northern half falling under the control of an oppressive communist regime. After failing to take control of South Korea in 1953, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung adopted a policy of economic and diplomatic isolationism meant to minimize outside influence. This policy has since greatly contributed to substandard living conditions for the nation’s people.
Facts About Living Conditions in North Korea
- North Koreans regularly fall victim to food shortages, which result as much from a lack of resources and poor farming practices as they do environmental factors. The latest information from the World Food Programme (WFP) deems a third of North Korean children as chronically malnourished to the point of stunting. The WFP also reports that 68 percent of the population is dependent on government-distributed food rations, which have decreased in recent years. This has led to people to rely on the black market for food.
- Failure to maintain water and sanitation systems has left many of them in disrepair. Census data showed that, in 2008, 30 percent of the rural population and 18 percent of the urban population were forced to retrieve water from outside of their homes. Rudimentary sanitation systems fail to keep human waste from contaminating the environment, and the wells that people are forced to construct in order to gain access to water are often vulnerable to contamination, giving rise to waterborne illness.
- By 1960, North Korea had developed a comprehensive healthcare system that was free for all citizens. The system began to collapse in the 1980s due to the government’s inability to provide hospitals with basic medicine and equipment. Many North Koreans were consequently forced to buy medicine for high prices on the black market and pay doctors for informal consultations. This practice still continues today, with much of the population harboring distrust against the ill-equipped, state-run healthcare system.
- About 18.4 of the 25 million people who live in North Korea go without electricity. According to 2013 data, 41 percent of the urban population had access to electricity, compared to only 13 percent of the rural population. Even for these people, access is intermittent, as power outages are common and often long-lasting.
- While North Korea has an adequate telephone system, much of the population does not have access to it. According to estimates from July 2016, only 14 percent of North Koreans had mobile cellular service. At around 5 percent, even less had subscriptions to fixed lines.
- Although there is no data regarding the percentage of people who fall below the poverty line, unemployment rates in 2013 were at an estimated 25.6 percent. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the country has one of the lowest GDPs in the world.
- Freedom of information is virtually nonexistent in North Korea. Although North Koreans do have access to the internet, it is highly controlled by the state, and they need government permission to own a computer. The state owns all of the country’s media outlets, and must sanction any content that those outlets put out to the masses. Viewing, reading or listening to any unauthorized content is considered a crime against the state.
- Freedom of expression is equally oppressed. North Korea’s official religion, Juche, is centered around communist ideals and Korean nationalism. Those found practicing Christianity, which is considered a Western religion, risk imprisonment in one of the nation’s labor camps. Assembly, organized political opposition and any action that challenges government authority are also forbidden.
- The North Korean government uses a system called songbun to classify people into one of three categories: loyal, wavering or hostile. This classification figures into a person’s employment opportunities, residence and education. Family members may also face discrimination due to association.
- Forced labor is a possible reality for many North Koreans. As many as 100,000 people are held in prison camps, forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. Immediate family members may be deemed guilty by association and held in these camps for up to three generations. According to the CIA World Factbook, North Korea has been known to contract citizens to work in Russia and China, with no power to decide the work they are assigned or change their work assignments. In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch likewise cited allegations of the government forcing children to participate in unpaid labor.
The state of affairs goes beyond what these facts about living conditions in North Korea can begin to cover. In light of this, the U.N. Security Council has for the past several years made it a priority to address the country’s human rights violations. And, on March 24, 2017, the Human Rights Council took the first steps toward prosecution of the leaders and officials responsible for these violations. If the current situation is bleak, the outlook for the future, at least, is better.
– Ashley Wagner