Members Area

How North Korea’s burgeoning middle class is painting a new picture of life in the DPRK

The traditional picture painted by the media of North Koreans as an impoverished people is outdated thanks to a burgeoning middle class – but the dark days of starvation may not be far away if sanctions continue to be imposed on the world’s most isolated nation.

Author Nick Bonner showed graphics from his new book, Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Author Nick Bonner showed graphics from his new book, Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

That was the opinion of Nick Bonner, author, filmmaker and founder of a North Korean tour group who shared his insights into the DPRK having spent the last 25 years traveling to and from it.

Bonner’s new book, Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life, uses an extensive collection of graphics and North Korean propaganda artwork to tell the story of how the country has evolved over the last two decades.

Through slides showing various graphics and products, like cigarette packets, he explained how colour illustrated eras the country was going through: vibrant primary colours in the 1970s to promote the country’s virtues, against the greys and browns of the 90s during North Korea’s economic crisis which resulted in widespread famine.

The landscape architect first visited North Korea in 1993, which then inspired him to start Koryo Tours – a Beijing-based travel agency specialising in travel to North Korea. Bonner has produced three award-winning documentaries about the country, as well as North Korea’s first ‘girl power’ movie — ‘Comrade Kim goes Flying’ — which became the first-ever North Korean film to be shown to a public audience in South Korea.

But today’s North Korea – particularly its capital, Pyongyang, paints a different picture. Using his own photographs – one showing a child on a shiny red bicycle carrying a dried fish – Bonner showed the wealth element in the country’s everyday life. Some of this influence came from China, he said.

“Shops in the Metro are full of Chinese (made) rubbish – things that glow, things that are shiny,” he said, adding that market reform in 2002 meant that the import of foreign products brought about greater prosperity. “With products coming in from abroad…it’s given North Korea a kick to make their own products and repackage them.”

However, sanctions imposed as a result of leader Kim Jong-un’s ongoing spat with United States President Donald Trump could see a return to the North Korea of old, Bonner warned, adding that it would be more productive to engage the country rather than isolate it further.

We want reunification dialogue with North Korea, but only after nuclear program is stopped – South Korea

Enna Park, centre, during her press conference at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Enna Park, centre, during her press conference at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

South Korea hasn’t taken its unification hopes off the table, but North Korea will need to ditch its nuclear program before such dialogue can begin, said South Korea’s Ambassador for public diplomacy.

Enna Park was talking at a press conference held at the FCC on June 27. She said that South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, was keen to open up communication with the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) but that talks were unlikely unless sanctions, coupled with incentives to drop nuclear development, were to come to fruition.

“When the conditions are right, when North Korea feels more comfortable talking with South Korea, we will have dialogue with North Korea. We will not attempt to unify North Korea by any means. It doesn’t mean we’re not keeping up our aspirations for reunification,” she said.

When asked whether South Korea’s new government was seeking engagement with North Korea, and whether the time was right for engagement in light of the death American student Otto Warmbier at the hands of the regime, Park said: “Yes, engagement is on the menu. No, it is not the right time to engage North Korea. The government wants to open the room to engagement if conditions are right in the future. We do not have a very concrete, clear description about conditions. It is subject to further consultation.”

She added: “The death of Otto Warmbier is very horrible, it reminds us of the horrible violation of human rights by North Korea.”

On the topic of South Korea’s plans to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system, and China’s reaction by urging boycotts of South Korean companies operating in China, Park said the government’s priority was protecting its people: “Probably it’s better not to try to please everybody. It is a critical asset to us to protect our own security. The priority is our national interest, our security. The top priority is not how to please the others.”

…we cannot rule out some intentional launch of missiles towards China under circumstances in the future.

She added that she was aware that China was concerned with how the system might be used – “they have their own concerns on the possible use of system to surveil what’s going on inside Chinese territory” – but said that her government was ready to discuss those concerns with China.

Having worked for many years at the Korean embassy in Beijing, Park also shed light on the threat felt by China from its ally North Korea. “The direction of missiles launched by North Korea is usually headed to South Korea western sea or eastern sea,” she said. “I think China had some worries about a possible mistake… or we cannot rule out some intentional launch of missiles towards China under circumstances in the future.”

Park also talked of the bridges South Korea is are attempting to build with Japan, with which it also has historical conflict, namely the use of Korean females as “comfort women” for Imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II. She said South Korea’s previous government had wanted to resolve historic matters before pressing on with any regional partnership.

“The previous government took the approach that we have to solve history problems first then liaise with Japan, but this approach actually didn’t bring any good result,” Park said. “So the new government has a two track approach: on one hand we’ll continue to work on history issues. On the other hand we will work with Japan to achieve common goals – solving the nuclear problems of North Korea and establishing peace in the region… creating synergy for economy, so many things that we can work together.”

When World War II ended in 1945, Japan lost control of Korea to Allied forces, leaving Korea to be divided in two, with the Soviet Union administering the northern half and the United States administering the southern half. Since then, the threat of nuclear annihilation as the north began developing nuclear capabilities has hung over the south.

‘Speak up against China’: North Korean defector Yeonmi Park’s tearful plea

A young woman who defected from North Korea made a tearful plea to FCC guests to help the “forgotten” people of her home country as she spoke at a club lunch on April 3.

Yeonmi Park recounted the ordeal that she endured as she escaped the dictatorship with her mother in 2007. The pair were trafficked into China where mother and daughter were sold into slavery. Ms Park has since written a book, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, on her escape, and gives talks around the world.

Ms Park, whose mother was in the audience as she spoke, gave an insight into life in North Korea, where the internet is banned and education is geared largely towards serving the “socialist paradise”. Children are taught to hate “American bastards”, and watching American movies can lead to incarceration in a prison camp, she said.

“I did not know what Africa was,” she said, adding: “I did not know we had many different races in the world.”

Yeonmi Park takes questions from the audience after an emotional talk on her escape from North Korea. Photo: Sarah Graham Yeonmi Park takes questions from the audience after an emotional talk on her escape from North Korea. Photo: Sarah Graham

When she finally escaped North Korea, she was forced to watch as her mother was raped by a trafficker. “We did not have sex education in North Korea… I lost my faith in humanity. She was raped instead of me.”

Eventually, her mother was sold for US$75, and Ms Park for $200 “because I was a virgin and I was younger”, she said. A year later mother and daughter were helped out of China to South Korea.

Watch Yeonmi Park recount her ordeal:

On her life today as a university student, Ms Park said: “I’m trying to be normal as much as possible but I will never be normal because I am from a different universe. I am here today even though I know I might get killed by Kim Jong-un. I am on his target list but human rights is something to care about, I will continue to talk about this.”

Having recounted her harrowing story, she fought back tears as she directly addressed the audience, and said: “The people of North Korea have been forgotten for 70 years… I am asking you to help them… Why doesn’t anyone do anything about North Korea?”

When asked by a guest what exactly could be done to help those in North Korea, she asked that people support the NGOs on the ground rescuing defectors in China. And she added: “Speak up against China.”

Waiting for the big story: AFP opens new bureau in North Korea

The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP

Agence France-Presse’s new bureau in Pyongyang, which opened in September, is already churning out the stories.

The bureau, which was officially opened by Emmanuel Hoog, the group’s chief executive and chairman, so far has been focusing on producing video and photographic content.

It was able to open following an agreement made earlier in the year between AFP and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), following “about 10 rounds of negotiations that began in 2012”, said Philippe Massonnet, AFP’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

“Not that there was any resistance by the authorities, but it was only a matter of time as we were not only dealing with KCNA, but other government departments as well.”

The Pyongyang bureau will be staffed by a locally hired videographer and a photographer, who will work in conjunction with visiting foreign correspondents, which mirrors other international news bureaux, including the Associated Press, Xinhua, Ria Novosti and Japan’s Kyodo News. AP opened the first foreign bureau in 2012.

Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

As a big international news agency “we have to be wherever we can”, Massonnet said. “For us, it is normal and natural to open an office in North Korea, as we open offices everywhere in the world – in some we cannot employ locals, in others it’s foreigners.”

With North Korea’s total media censorship and control it must be a struggle for the locally hired staff to function properly for foreign media – even with training. “We brought the North Korean staff to Hong Kong in August for training sessions about how AFP works as well as going on shoots to take care of the practical aspects,” Massonnet said. “The two were competent and open and enthusiastic about the training and even though they were accompanied by an KCNA official the training was unsupervised.

“We had worked with the same official before during the negotiations and got on well, so we took the opportunity to show him how we deal with photo and video stories from other countries – which he found interesting even though he acknowledged that many of those types of stories would not be done by KCNA.”

AFP’s Seoul bureau chief will run the bureau while teams from South Korea, Hong Kong or China will be sent every two months or so as part of the deal. “So far, we sent a team in July, again in September and another is planned for November,” he said. “There are no visa problems and now the visas are issued in Hong Kong rather than having to go via Beijing.”

In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

“The November mission we will try to get, among others, the August flood aftermath story, but it is difficult – or at least time consuming – to get approval.

“Typically, we submit a list of say 20 potential stories in the hope of getting five or six to run with.”

So far the Pyongyang team has been involved in stock footage shoots of the capital as well as getting on the streets and train stations and the like; or reacting when someone noteworthy visits Pyongyang. “We did cover the 15th Pyongyang International Film festival [brainchild of the cinema-obsessed “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-ll] in September.

“It’s really a way of showing as much as we can about what’s happening in Pyongyang. Many of our clients – particularly in South Korea and Japan – want as many images as they can get from the country.”

One of the ways the AFP team gets around in North Korea is to work with NGOs, “often going to places that are normally difficult for journalists to get to”. A case in point is that they were able to cover the floods in North Hamgyong province, where some 140 people were killed and 35,000 homes destroyed, by being part of an NGO team. “It enabled us to get some great footage,” he said.

Everything produced by AFP in North Korea will be edited by AFP people, mainly at the regional headquarters in Hong Kong. “There is no difference from anywhere else in the region where we have people taking photos or videos or writing stories. They send their material to Hong Kong, and it will be exactly the same for North Korean stories.”

Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013. North Korea mounted its largest ever military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War, displaying its long-range missiles at a ceremony presided over by leader Kim Jong-Un. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

As in other countries where AFP operates there is official monitoring. “But monitoring is not a problem. It would be a problem if we were censored. The big issue for us is to go there and to report or shoot what we see… and this job won’t be much different than the one we do in other countries where it is difficult to work.”

Once a story is finished and on the “wires” that might be another story. “So far we have had no negative feedback from government officials,” Massonnet said. “We will see where the limits are of what is possible to do and what is not. If we think it is worth doing and reporting about, then we will do it. It may be difficult sometimes, but that doesn’t prevent us from working and getting good material.”

Apart from a few big occasions such as mass rallies and big celebrations, foreign media don’t report from North Korea very often. “So we have a very rare opportunity to be there every month and to deliver content to our Asian clients who have big expectations about our North Korea coverage.”

Massonnet likened the Pyongyang experience with Beijing in the 70s and 80s when correspondents had no official contacts or news sources and had to rely on what they saw in the streets as reporting beyond the city was all but impossible. However, when the big story came – China opening up – the resident bureaux could move fast.

AFP’s Pyongyang-based crew on the job. Photo: AFP AFP’s Pyongyang-based crew on the job. Photo: AFP

“It makes sense to be in Pyongyang, not only because we don’t have much competition from the few journalists who go there, but also there are some opportunities to make connections so that you are ready when the big story breaks,” he said.

Massonnet said that even today in China, how many sources are there within the Chinese Communist Party to cover real political stories? You are left with the economic stories and speculation.

“The opening of an AFP bureau in Pyongyang will further strengthen the agency’s international network,” said the AFP chief executive, Emmanuel Hoog at the opening ceremony. “AFP’s role is to be present everywhere in the world in order to fulfil its news mission as completely as possible, in particular through images.”

AFP – which is a public company but governed by a board of representatives from French news organisations and the government – has 200 bureaux across 150 countries.

We measure site performance with cookies to improve performance.