For the vast majority of the 25 million North Koreans, food is scarce. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the population — around 18 million — goes hungry, with the stunting of children’s growth a “rampant phenomenon” due to the lack of nutrition. Almost 9 million have no health care, and more than 5 million live in squalor because they lack clean running water.
While food may be scarce, distrust is not. From childhood, North Koreans are instructed to report anyone being even mildly nonconformist or speaking of their leadership without over-the-top praise, even in private conversation. Tom Fowdy, founder of the analysis group Young DPRK Watchers, noted that compulsory community meetings are held: singing songs about their leaders and goading each other into confessing minor crimes.
A caste system means North Koreans often remain in the social rank into which they were born, something determined by a family’s reputation. Sometimes a citizen can move up the ladder to a more privileged caste, depending on one’s perceived support of the leadership, or move down the ladder, depending on one’s links to criminals, defectors or South Koreans.
“Those with a poor songbun (caste ranking) will have poor prospects,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which produces analyses on North Korea. “But regardless of one’s background, most young North Koreans should never expect to leave their country, officially consume foreign-produced information unapproved by the government or show respect to anyone beyond a leader to the Kim family tree.”
A North Korean is required to hang in their homes portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father, respectively, or the current leader. There are routine checks by authorities to ensure these are kept immaculately clean. It is mostly prohibited for one to communicate with others in the world outside. Pirated modern movies and music occasionally make their way into homes but, if caught, violators can be punished with death.
Soldiers have been known to enter homes and extract entire families, who are never heard from again.