News

    North Korea's Elite Enjoy Life of Relative Privilege

    North Korea's claims it has tested a nuclear explosive device have brought the isolated country to the center of the world stage. A year ago, VOA correspondent Luis Ramirez was permitted to visit the Marxist state, which has suffered hunger and a decline economy for more than a decade. But he found that while millions of people in the countryside still struggle to recover from a devastating famine in the 1990's, the elite in the capital enjoy a life of relative privilege.

    In a pattern very much like that of ancient Korean societies, people in today's communist North Korean state are categorized by a three-tiered caste system.

    The top echelon is the class of core loyalists to the ruling dynasty begun by North Korea's late leader Kim Il Sung and extended by his son, current ruler Kim Jong Il.

    Most workers and peasants belong to the middle, or neutral, class. The hostile class, at the bottom rung of North Korean society, includes those who have in any way expressed dissatisfaction with the state, whose relatives may have escaped to South Korea, or whose ancestors were landowners. Experts on North Korea and refugees now abroad say members of this class and their families are often in prison camps, far from view.

    Only members of the loyal top class are allowed to live in the showcase capital city - mostly in towering, austere apartment blocks.

    It is difficult for foreign observers to see what their everyday lives are like. People are forbidden to invite foreigners to their homes. All international aid workers and diplomats interviewed in Pyongyang said they have never seen the inside of local residents' homes.

    A peek inside apartment windows from a speeding bus shows neatly painted rooms, each with twin portraits of the late so-called "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il, who is known as the "Dear Leader."

    That loyalty pays off in many ways. Aid workers report dire shortages of food and medicine in the North Korean countryside, but residents of the capital have privileged access to consumer goods such as packaged foods and washing machines.

    Only those who hold high positions in the regime have access to the few motor vehicles - including some luxury cars - seen in Pyongyang. Residents also have access to better medical care.

    At the clean and bustling 1,500-bed Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, administrators explain what a privilege it is for women to give birth here. Even residents of Pyongyang are only allowed to have their firstborn children in the facility.

    Dr. Kim Cheun Heui proudly displays her hospital's modern X-ray and scanning equipment to a small group of American journalists.

    "Last year, the great General Kim Jong Il sent us so many updated machines," explained Dr. Kim. "This is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that can check the inside of the body. If you have a small tumor, it can find it easily."

    Dr. Kim shows reporters a hall where newborns and their mothers are kept in strangely hermetic conditions. Visitors can see the women only on closed-circuit television, and speak to them by telephone.

    Hospital administrators allow reporters to interview two young mothers in a carefully prepared scene. With their hair impeccably combed, their spotless blankets perfectly folded and their babies sleeping peacefully in their arms, they strike an angelic pose. A reporter asked 26-year-old Som Yun Mi what dreams she has for her daughter.

    "I want my daughter to be forever devoted to the great General Kim Jong Il's army, even though she is a woman," she said.

    Also on the hospital tour was a stop at the nursery, where a nurse proudly shows off a set of triplets. Multiple births are a special source of pride in North Korea, where the government encourages women of the loyal class to give birth to nine or more children - all presumed to be future soldiers in Kim Jong Il's million-man army.

    The scene is a stunning contrast to refugees' tales of the North Korea they know, where women of the hostile class are forced to have abortions at prison camps. This, they say, is part of Mr. Kim's drive for ethnic and ideological purity.

    Authorities in Pyongyang turned down requests by visiting reporters to visit hospitals in the countryside. Humanitarian officials say conditions there are much worse than at the showcase hospital in the capital.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.