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.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs