Question: Was there anything good or positive about living in North Korea? All we hear about are the bad things. Do any of the DPRK’s citizens benefit from the state?
Jae-young: Although media and news only show negative aspects to life in North Korea, there are actually positive and good aspects about life in the DPRK. Of course there are differences between individuals, but compared to my current life in the South, life in North was mentally rich – even if it was materially insufficient. The reason for this is because of the pure heart and affection of North Koreans. Here, in South Korea, there are lots of people with affection, but in North Korea, especially in rural areas, affection between neighbors is very pure and deep.
In North Korea, on birthdays and national holidays, families and neighbors gather and share with each other. My mother used to cook a lot and share food with neighbors. She didn’t have to cook a lot for my family, but because neighbors had a lot of family members, she had to cook a lot. Even though she had to wake up early and cook, she never refused. I used to wake up early and help my mother. On major holidays, we invited our neighbors (we used to call my mother’s friends “aunt”), shared food and stories with them. My mom was really good at making ‘Jong-Pyun rice cake’ and I can still remember my aunts exclaiming how good they tasted. During nights, we gathered together, turned music on and danced. On days when electricity went out, we used to play the accordion, sing, dance and have fun. I used to have so much fun and danced so hard that my socks had holes when I checked them in morning. My father used to be respected as a gagman (comedian). Also on national holidays, North Koreans visit their parents, teachers and alumnus. In South Korea, people do the same, but I think it was deeper in North.
Moreover, North Korea’s excellent natural environment is another nice aspect of life in North Korea. Air in North Korea is very fresh. In spring and fall, my school used to go on field trips. Every year, we went to a cool valley. Water was very fresh and lots of flowers were in bloom. For the whole day, we played scavenger hunt, swam, then ate packed lunch, cooked by my mother. I bragged about how my lunch tastes better than others’. After lunch, we had talent shows. I remember bragging about earning prizes for my skills and getting praised.
Although from a material perspective things were often lacking, I sometimes miss the pure heart and sharing affection so common to my life in North Korea.
To the second part of your question… In North Korea, although it isn’t common, there are some ordinary people who receive gifts directly from the state. Some people earn the “hero” title and receive televisions and other goods. These people get better gifts than other people on national holidays. But there aren’t many of these people – I rarely saw a “hero” in my town. There was one, but he didn’t get as many benefits as other “heroes”. Really, the main people who really get benefits from the government are civil servants, such as party officers, police officers, government agents and few other people. These are the people who get to live with consistent privileges and get to live an easy life.
On the other hand, benefits that common people get include free health care and education. Schools are free. Unlike in South Korea, if a student falls behind, teachers help them after school hours. Moreover, students who are good at school work to help other students. In addition, if a student wants to learn how to play an instrument or certain sports, they can learn for free. I used to learn how to play the guitar and accordion. I also think that I didn’t have to pay for books. However, the government didn’t pay for them either. But because the government didn’t provide enough funds for books and uniforms, my teacher gave them to us, according to our grades. I had a friend who was mad at the teacher for not giving him books, because his grades weren’t good enough. Our predecessors gave us books and we gave them to our successors. That’s why we used them as carefully as we could and studied as hard as we could. Because of that, I still can’t write or draw on books. Education is free in North Korea, but lots of people had to buy books and uniforms by themselves.
Health care was free as well. According to an acquaintance of mine, she gave birth in a maternity hospital for free. I didn’t have to pay for treatment either. Operations, checkups and medicines were free as well, but lots of people had to pay, since this was in theory only. Lots of state provisions for common people were in theory only, so people had to pay for them.
Everything was suffocating and pitiful in North Korea, but it is a country that I have many positive memories from. So if someone asks me ‘What is North Korea like?’ then I say ‘North Korea is a nice place with plenty of love.’