How North Korea Works

Life in North Korea

Han Gwang, supermarket Han Gwang, supermarket
Shopper Han Gwang-Rim (34) poses for a portrait with his daughter Su Ryon (3) at a supermarket in Pyongyang. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea has farms that grow rice, corn, potatoes, soybeans and other crops, but food production isn't enough to meet the country's needs. Its industrial sector — which includes chemical plants, textile factories and mines — isn't exactly thriving, either. Production dropped by 3.1 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which estimates are available, and its GDP is just $40 billion [source: CIA Factbook].

As result, for ordinary North Koreans, life is very difficult. The life expectancy is around 67 years for men and 74 years for women, significantly lower than on the other side of the 38th parallel (In South Korea, life expectancy is 79 years for men and 85 years for women) [source: CIA Factbook]. Years of chronic food shortages have stunted North Koreans' growth, so that a 2010 study of North Korean defectors found that the men were between 1.9 and 4.3 inches (4.9 and 10.8 centimeters) shorter and 13.2 to 27.6 pounds (6 to 12.5 kilograms) lighter than their South Korean counterparts [source: Choi et al.].

According to author Paul French, Pyongyang suffers chronic power outages due to fuel shortages, so that people often use candles or kerosene lamps to light their homes after dark. In winter, they sleep in their clothes due to lack of heat. The power shortages also mean that elevators in buildings seldom work. And since most people live in high rises of 20 to 40 stories, it can be very difficult to get around if you are enfeebled. "There are stories of old people, who having moved in, have never been able to leave," writes French.

After the workday ends, most ordinary North Koreans must stay behind for the daily "Community Session" and "Learning Session." The Community Session is a time to go over the day's tasks and production goals. The Learning Session is to disseminate party policy and report yourself — or others — for breaking the rules. However, defectors report that attendance has been dropping at these meetings, with little censure, as the party begins to understand that most people need their spare time to hunt for food to buy, and are often ill from malnourishment [source: French].

For those in the communist elite, though, things are considerably better. Kim Jong Un reportedly lives a life of luxury on a private island. "It's like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he's the only one that lives there," reported former NBA star Dennis Rodman, after a 2013 visit [source: Ryall].

Sanctions haven't put a crimp in Kim Jong Un's lifestyle. That may be because the regime has developed numerous unsavory sources of income, including drug smuggling and counterfeiting U.S. currency, to buy what it needs to maintain their luxurious lifestyle [sources: Fifeld, Bowden]. But even lesser officials make extra income though corruption, such as stealing some of the gold, silver and nickel produced by North Korean mines and selling it on the Chinese black market [source: Phillips].