Ask A North Korean What It Is Like Growing Up In Pyongyang

The Secret to Watching Steven Segal Movies in North Korea

Ask a North Korean: What was it like growing up in Pyongyang? the-secret-to-watching-steven- seagal-movies-in-north-korea- 2/


Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week Nikolay S. from Novsibirsk asks:

What was it like to grow up in the capital city Pyongyang? If life is as good as people say there, what made you leave?

When I tell people I’m from Pyongyang, it always raises their attention. People give me a surprising look and always show a keen interest in learning about my life there. They seem to have this fixed idea of North Koreans from Pyongyang – they see us performing mechanics at mass games or uncontrollably wailing over the death of Kim Il Sung. Often I feel they see me as if I came from ancient Rome or another planet.

I have a lot of friends around me now, something I could never really have in North Korea. There it’s very difficult to form proper relationships with other people – when I lived there we were prohibited from privately meeting with more than five people and were under a surveillance system that made us monitor even our closest friends. So the friends I have here in Europe now make me feel so grateful and comfortable.

North Korea is a small country – you can reach anywhere by plane within an hour. But countless people die there without visiting Pyongyang even once. That’s because the government does not allow its people to move from one place to another without the relevant travel documents and a good reason for travel. It is very difficult to do so except for business trips or family events. Entry into Pyongyang is strictly controlled due to the security of the Kim family and the dense military presence there. So Pyongyang is seen as a dream city that everyone wants to visit, the only city in North Korea that has a theme park and zoo, the only place you can only enjoy the culture of arts and sports. It’s even home to the country’s only bowling club!

“Pyongyang is seen as a dream city that everyone wants to visit”

People living outside Pyongyang have never had much of a modern lifestyle and probably won’t for the foreseeable future, so it cannot be denied that Pyongyang citizens are a privileged class in this sense. For example, when millions of North Koreans starved to death during the Arduous March , the people in Pyongyang hardly suffered. And during that time I never saw any homeless kids in the streets.

So how did the people in Pyongyang survive in a period of severe nationwide famine? Are they really better off because they are a privileged class? Of course there are indeed a lucky few, such as high ranking officials and their families, who live under armed guard. But what about the others?

North Korea once had a planned economy which included a rationing system that allowed many people to get their basic necessities from the government. But the severe famine, which followed natural disaster and economic crisis, meant that the government could no longer sustain the rationing system and the normal people outside Pyongyang were pushed out onto the street without being given a chance to adapt to such an abrupt change.

But Pyongyang was a completely different world. No one was really dying of hunger, no one was finding themselves homeless and the rationing system more or less continued to work smoothly, albeit with reduced quantities. Even though the electricity and fuel supply frequently cut off, at least in Pyongyang there was no sign of weakened government control. So while the rations were not as abundant as they used to be, the fact that people got their rations at all was a substantial advantage.

So what about other the other regions?

Since the rationing system stopped working, people began to realize the concept of the market economy and gained first-hand experience of it. They were desperate to find food and needed money. So they went to the river or sea to hunt fish and sell in the market. Some people even bred domestic animals and butchered them secretly.

People running restaurants or hotels were often involved in prostitution and brewing illegal alcohol to make money. Some of them even tried to dismantle infrastructure, machinery and ammunition in order to sell the equipment off to Chinese merchants. Almost every market in North Korea became overflown with Chinese goods and consequently North Korea became economically closer to China. In my opinion it was this economic turbulence that ultimately opened the eyes of the North Korean people.

“In a way, the famine had unintended consequences for us in Pyongyang”

In a way, the famine had unintended consequences for us in Pyongyang. As exchange between China and North Korea gradually begun to promote the lifestyle of capitalism, it started to undermine the control of the central government. In this respect, Pyongyang residents benefited the most. We were worn out by the totalitarianism and the militarized lifestyle of the famine, so when the idea of individuality and being fashionable arrived it spread rapidly among the young generation. And so it wasn’t long before we started watching South Korean films and dramas and listening to South Korean music and dreaming about the new world.

But there was danger in that world, for some of those who were caught by the government in the early days were punished by death. W

Despite the risks, the people’s desire for freedom was so intense that it could overcome this irrational oppression by the state. And funnily enough one source of information about external societies and the force of capitalism came from the ruling class and elite. Because once the foreign movies and dramas were imported for elite it wasn’t long before they were duplicated and distributed to ordinary people. So it should come as no surprise to you that when I lived in Pyongyang almost all of my friends watched Korean or Chinese dramas as well as American movies.

Although we could not directly express it, every one of us could clearly realize what was wrong and wanted our own individuality and freedom. Even when my usually strict father got drunk he would enjoy hearing me sing a love song and playing the guitar! I guess humans naturally love to hear songs that talk about love and the casual lives of people, rather than hard-boiled war songs worshiping Kim Il Sung and his sons. And so no surprise, by the time when I graduated school, there was hardly anyone who did not know a song from South Korea.

“I will never forget covering the window with a thick duvet so we could watch Steven Seagal action movies”

That reminds me, I still vividly remember listening to South Korean radio in secret with my friends, something that enabled us to learn about new emotions and feelings. What a little joy of freedom that gave me! Imagine taking out that small radio and listening to it while everyone is sleeping. I will never be able to forget the nights of longing for the world that seemed to have no pain and no sorrow.

I will never forget the time when a group of friends and I gathered, covering the window with a thick duvet and fastening two or three locks to the door so we could watch Steven Segal action movies. Or watching Titanic and embarrassing each other, trying to be manly even though we were shedding tears down our cheeks.

In the end, it was things like this that gave me reason to want to leave North Korea. Despite the prospect and horror of being caught, after making up my mind I did not retreat. I needed to know the taste of freedom myself and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. This meant it didn’t take more than a second to decide to leave the country I had spent most of my time and still have all the memories of life.

I now look at my homeland with great sympathy and affection. I am still so attached to it, despite the pain it inflicted on my family. I look at my homeland with great sympathy and affection. I genuinely wish every North Korean could achieve their liberty. I want them to live in North Korea with true freedom and guaranteed human rights. And I ask for everyone’s help on this issue.

In a way, North Korea is a small country in East Asia that has no relation to most of people around the world, but there is deep sorrow and pain in my country. I really believe that we can act together to let those helpless North Koreans know of basic human rights and the joy of freedom they were previously not aware of.

Got a question for Ji Min? Email it to with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

Editing and translation by NK News London.

Artwork by Catherine Salkeld

Click here to meet Mina, our other “Ask a North Korean” correspondent


Ji-Min Kang


Ji-min is an “Ask a North Korean” contributor. He is in his late 20s and left Pyongyang in 2005. He can be reached at

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