How North Koreans live
When we talk about North Korea and its political actions ― missiles, nuclear tests and the like ― we also tend to overlook that North Korea is, above all, a country and hence populated by people who, in spite of all the political turbulence, somehow manage to continue with their normal lives.
So, what does a typical North Korean house look like? Where do North Koreans live?
In spite of the small size of apartments, North Koreans still prefer them to individual houses: apartment complexes have much better amenities – tap water, flush toilets and the like. However, few North Korean dwellings have their own toilets, and individual showers are almost unheard of. In most cases, people share facilities: in less luxurious apartments, for example, there is one toilet per floor.
By modern South Korean standards, North Korean dwellings are small. Flats in the most apartment complexes have only two rooms (plus a kitchen). A flat with three rooms is seen as a rare luxury. The total area of the average Pyongyang apartment never exceeds 30 square meters (larger ones exist, but are used only by the elite). If the family lives in a one-story individual house ― still the norm in smaller cities and in the countryside ― the living area is marginally larger, but the house still usually contains only two rooms and a kitchen.
There is no difference between the ``living room” and ``bedroom.” Since the average urban family has three to five members, they cannot afford to have separate bedrooms, and at night all rooms are used for sleeping. When a North Korean says how many rooms are in his or her house, the number includes all rooms ― not only bedrooms as customary in Western countries and South Korea.
The walls are whitened with chalk. Twice a year, the North used to conduct “sanitary month” when citizens were encouraged to restore their dwellings to good condition ― this often included chalking the walls and ceilings. In recent years, due to crisis and weakening state control, such enforced cleaning is less frequent.
From the early 1980s, chalk began being gradually replaced by wallpaper (it covers not only the walls but also the ceiling). Initially, the wallpaper was a sign of luxury, but nowadays it is common in Pyongyang and other major cities. Most of the available wallpaper is thick and rough, produced from recycled paper. However, more affluent households have begun to use expensive foreign-made wallpaper imported from China.
For ages, the warm floors of Korean houses were topped with thick oiled paper. This tradition is still alive in the North, even if the rich prefer linoleum and various kinds of plastic flooring.
A prominent feature of the interior is double portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Actually, the houses of the average citizens have three pictures: one depicts Kim Il-sung, another presents Kim Jong-il and yet another shows them working together. Households of officials have a different set which includes a portrait of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Jong-il’s mother.
They are placed on the wall, and it is forbidden to put anything else on the same wall. No family photos, calendars or pictures must be put on an equal footing with the sacral images of the leaders. Kim Il-sung’s portraits were made obligatory in private houses in the early 1970s (Kim Jong-il portraits were introduced a decade later). Since then, the authorities began to discourage the display of family photos: the proper distance between the photos of humble commoners and the likeness of the “Great Leader” had to be kept.
A North Korean dwelling boasts a number of covers. Everything is protected from dust (and decorated) with tailor-made pieces of cloth. Clothes are often on open hangers, not in wardrobes. However, they are protected by elaborate covers, which are often embroidered.
Other pieces of fabric protect household equipment ― television and radio sets, sewing machines, tape recorders and DVD players (all of these are expensive and important items in the North). Such covers are often hand-made. The art of embroidery is highly developed in the North, and many Korean girls learn how to during childhood. A set of such covers, prepared by the bride, is a common part of a dowry.
The furniture of North Korean houses is quite simple and especially appealing aesthetically. However, people try to beautify their dwellings by all things imaginable. Apart from embroidery, many North Koreans grow potted houseplants. Aquariums with exotic fish are also popular ― to the point that Pyongyang even boasts of specialized ``aquarium shops” (quite unusual for the North Korean retail system which usually tends to ignore citizens’ hobbies).
The houses also tend to be very clean – not a simple task, taking into consideration the limited access to water and detergent. Cleaning the kitchen is especially difficult as the wide use of coal for cooking means that kitchen walls do not stay white for long. North Korean kitchens are decisively low-tech, even against the backdrop of the generally low level of ``home automation” in the country. But that is another story…
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.