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Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in North Korea
The world was watching when Kim Jong Un ascended the international stage to shake hands with U.S. President Donald Trump. Yet the fanfare of a once-in-a-blue-moon summit in Singapore between the North Korean and American heads of state shuffled North Korean human rights abuses to the back of the media’s story deck. The latest member of the Kim dynasty lives and speaks in superlatives; his people do not. Here are the t
op 10 facts about living conditions in North Korea.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in North Korea

  1. For a time following the immediate years of the Korean War, North Korea held a slight lead in wealth over South Korea, but famines and increasing state control over the domestic market led to economic contraction. Today, North Korea relies heavily on China for energy and food imports.
  2. North Korea’s GDP per capita stood at about $1000 in 2017. In comparison, China’s GDP per capita in 2016 was about eight times that; the United States measures in at approximately $58,000.
  3. North Korea’s weather is often harsh as it borders Siberia. Winters there can drag temperatures down below zero degrees Celsius (about eight degrees Fahrenheit). A profoundly inadequate heating system forces many inhabitants to gather fuel to keep warm months before the winds and snow arrive.
  4. In 2013, upwards of 18 million people in North Korea lived without electricity; infrastructure has yet to see major improvement since. In urban areas, approximately 41 percent of the population had access to electricity — that number drops down to 13 percent for rural areas.
  5. Although the state economy is running only by virtue of China’s life support, North Korea has a burgeoning black market. Smuggling and dealing in products from drugs to ice supplies many citizens with the income to buy food.
  6. Propaganda is ingrained in both North Korea’s billboards and in many of its people’s minds. As a correspondent for CNN discovered in his time in the hermit kingdom, many in Pyongyang, the capital and most prosperous city of the country, heap praise on the Kim dynasty and hate the Americans. It is unclear whether or not they are forced to do so.
  7. North Korea’s government groups its citizens via a categorization system called “songbun,” which is comprised of three different categories — loyal, wavering and hostile. As expected, those who are deemed loyal receive benefits, while those marked as hostile often find themselves recipients of discrimination.
  8. Life expectancy in North Korea averages at about 70 years. For perspective, it is ranked 157th in the world in this category by the CIA World Factbook. A variety of factors, such as inadequate health infrastructure and food shortages, contribute to its ranking.
  9. North Korean refugees are among the most disadvantaged groups in the world. If they are caught (illegally) crossing the North Korean border into China by DPRK officials, they risk being sent to labor camps. If caught by Chinese officials, they are turned back to their host country; even if they aren’t caught, many are forced into slave labor and prostitution in China and Russia.
  10. Religion remains a sensitive spot for North Korean officials. Buddhists and Taoists are frequently persecuted if found practicing their beliefs and/or religion, and any official religious spaces exist only for propaganda purposes.

Improving Day to Day

The top 10 facts about living conditions in North Korea show that the situation is abysmal, but standards are on the rise. Kim Jong Un has been more liberal than his predecessors in state control of the economy, allowing pockets of capitalism to flourish.

Despite this, totalitarian shackles remain as steadfast as ever before, and the possibility of political reform seems a distant specter. A long bridge of negotiation and diplomacy on the part of outside powers must be crossed if living conditions in North Korea are ever to substantially improve.

Alex Qi
Photo: Flickr

 Korean War Facts
After World War II, the Korean War displayed the growing, global rivalry between the leading superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. Engaged in “limited war,” the U.S. aimed to protect South Korea instead of totally defeating its enemy. The public was accustomed to total victories from World War II, therefore the Korean War is a forgotten war for many Americans. However, Koreans live and breathe the effects of the first “limited war” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Below are crucial Korean War facts and how the forgotten war continues to impact Koreans.

Top Korean War Facts

  1. The Korean War (1950-1953), juxtaposed with Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910-1945), continued a painful history for many Koreans. As colonized people, Koreans suffered repeated abuse and violations. The Japanese forced comfort women, as young as middle school girls, to become sex slaves. Against their wills, Koreans were sent to work in Japan’s factories and to fight on the front lines of World War II. When the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the number of Koreans thought to be killed in the bombing was more than 20,000.
  2. In August 1945, the Japanese Empire fell, and two young colonels temporarily divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel, without consulting the Korean government. The Cold War brought a new set of challenges. South of the border, the U.S. reluctantly backed Syngman Rhee, the anti-communist dictator. Supported by the Soviets, Kim Il Sung, the communist dictator, reigned north of the border. As South Korea prepared to elect their leader, the Soviet Union blocked free elections in the North.
  3. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th Parallel. After three days, South Korea’s capital, Seoul, fell to the communists.
  4. In July 1950, U.S. troops entered the Korean War. In the eyes of the U.S., the Korean War was a war against international communism. Harry S. Truman said, “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one after another.” Sixteen U.N. members contributed combat forces that were led by General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.N. forces in Korea.
  5. MacArthur’s Operation Chromite, a surprise amphibious landing at Incheon, dealt with skepticism because of the city’s narrow port and extreme tides. On Sept. 15, 1950, MacArthur’s amphibious assault successfully pushed North Koreans out of Seoul and to their side of the 38th parallel, shifting the tides of the Korean War.
  6. Yet MacArthur’s successes became a dangerous flaw. In the past, the general successfully defended Bataan and Corregidor; in World War II, he conquered the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific. After pushing the North Koreans back, MacArthur confidently pressed upward to achieve his vision of unifying the Koreas, ignoring Chinese warnings of retaliation in response to further U.S. encroachment near their lands. When his troops pressed forward into North Korea, China entered the war and annihilated South Korean and the U.N. troops.
  7. Fearing escalated fighting with China would draw the Soviets into the Korean War, Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination. MacArthur’s wishes to wage war conflicted with President Truman’s agenda to maintain peace in Europe. In one instance, the general publicly threatened to bomb China.
  8. Civilian casualties amounted to more than half of total casualties during the Korean War. (In 2012, the Washington Post argued that the U.S. largely ignores civilians who die in military interventions. When looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, the article argues that U.S. leaders, emboldened by the public overlooking the civilian costs associated with each war, pursue greater international interventions.)
  9. Although an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the war technically continues today. In 1974, a North Korean agent assassinated Park Chung-hee, mother of current South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. To this date, a peace treaty has not been signed.
  10. After the Korean War, the U.S. national defense budget increased. South Korea immediately became poor; children survived on food donations like powdered milk. On the other hand, North Korea quickly recovered with Soviet and Chinese support. North Korea’s army became, and still remains, one of the largest armies in the world. However, North Korea‘s economy collapsed with the decline of the Soviet Union.

Today, South Korea has become the first nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to shift from being a recipient into a donor. In fact, since the 1960s, South Korea has increased its per capita GDP, which was once less than $40, more quickly than any of its neighbors. However, skirmishes between the two countries are frequent and fatal. Because the Korean War never ended, one wrong move could result in an expanded conflict.

Andy Jung

Photo: Flickr

Hunger in South Korea
A quick economic recovery after the end of World War II and the signing of the Korean War Armistice in 1953 has mitigated growing rates of poverty and hunger in South Korea. Poverty, however, is a particular threat to the elderly population in South Korea, which has been aptly named the “forgotten” generation.

According to a 2011 report by the government-funded Korea Labor Institute, 48.6 percent of the country’s elderly — individuals aged 65 and over — struggled with relative poverty. Relative poverty, as opposed to absolute poverty, is defined as earning 50 percent or less of the median household income.

More recently, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that approximately half of the country’s elderly were living in poverty in 2015. This poverty rate has been considered the highest among the 34 nations studied by the OECD.

Pastor Choi Seong-Won has been an organizer of a weekly mobile-kitchen for 18 years. He has helped to alleviate the economic hardships of the elderly homeless by providing lunches over the weekends.

Seong-Won told CNN that the reason for this emergence of elderly poverty and hunger in South Korea “is the more than two years of serious economic crisis in Korea, along with the global economic downturn. Wealthy people will be fine no matter the situation, but people going through economic struggles say now is a really difficult time.”

Other local churches in Korea have fed 300 to 500 seniors as they lined up for food. However, charitable meals will not solve the problem of elderly poverty and hunger in South Korea alone.

Bernard Rowan, professor of political science at Chicago State University, also discussed the causes of poverty in the Korea Times. Rowan cites population growth among the elderly in Korea shifts in cultural traditions as causal factors.

Traditionally, Korean culture has placed great emphasis on respecting seniors. The present-day lifestyle, however, has left many parents and grandparents to find work for themselves.

“That may include their emotional lives too,” Rowan explains. “A great many live incredibly alone.”

A Rise in Suicide Rates

Yet, these rates in poverty among the elderly have not only affected hunger in South Korea but have also contributed to higher rates of suicide. According to Statistics Korea, 50.3 out of every 100,000 Seoul citizens 60 years or older took their lives in 2014, the highest rate among all Korean age groups.

Seventy-year-old Seong Young-sook expressed her struggles to a CNN reporter saying, “I feel that my generation is being forgotten.” She continued, “I tried to kill myself next to my husband’s grave. Someone discovered me and I survived.”

Given that elderly poverty and hunger in South Korea are both affecting suicide rates, strategy and swift action are key to alleviating the problem.

Brainstorming and Enacting Solutions

In order to relieve elderly hunger in South Korea, the government recently updated its 1988 national pension system, now offering a “basic pension” retirement program. This expansion targets the poorest seniors and provides them with less than $200 a month.

The government plans to reach 90 percent of the population over the age of 64 by 2060.

Rowan also shared strategies to help reduce poverty among the elderly. The author suggests increasing the number of employment and volunteer opportunities for Korean elders in order to tap their knowledge and experience as well as continue to engage the demographic.

Kim Bok-soon, author of the Korea Labor Institute report, also offered a similar solution that goes beyond the pension program. He believes that the government’s labor market policy should be revised to accommodate elderly workers.

Public officials must continue to take action to alleviate elderly hunger in South Korea as well as high suicide rates.

Priscilla Son

Photo: Flickr