Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is everyday life like for an average citizen in North Korea? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
I travel annually to the DPRK and I have been all over the country.
If you live in Pyongyang life is difficult but manageable for those fortunate enough to live there. Still there is very little to buy. Soap, most foodstuffs, underwear, medicines and hundreds of other things are scarce. Elevators do not work. Bath tubs are for water storage. Toilets do not flush without a bucket. Stores use candles for lighting.
This is a society of connections – who you are related to and know matters for material existence. If you were to lose your family you cannot survive alone. If you have access to hard currency, RMB, Euros and Dollars, well then it gets a bit easier. The vast majority do not.
For millions struggling in villages and towns, particularly doing manual labor life is a constant struggle. No glass in apartments, hauling water, struggling to feed a household, infrequent electricity, poor medical care, little heat, etc.
While it resembles rural China, you see nothing of the flourishes or flashy toys the Chinese kids have. The clothes on the kids are usually adequate (below you see children on the street in Hamhung) but life in the north is marginal.
Life centers around the regime. Learning centers around the regime. Below is a primary school indoctrination room at the Chongjin primary school. This is the Kim Jong-il room.
Life in the north revolves around the 48 hour week and make work. I have seen middle school children digging ditches and college students doing manual labor in the worst weather. It is as if they keep them busy all the time.
Propaganda is everywhere. The regime is visible everywhere. Below is a mural in Wonsan and they are literally everywhere. There is nothing like it anywhere. In the USSR you had to look to find it. In the DPRK this is the norm.
Propaganda vans rove the towns and loudspeakers blare from 5am to 11pm. It is fascinating to see, and you will not see it if you are the typical tourist.
Village life is more what people experience. Some of the housing is adequate but much is now falling apart. The only reason the people in the countryside escaped the famine of 1996-97 was that they were self-sufficient in food. This is a village in the mountains near Haeju – a bit better and newer than average.