Widening Wealth Gap in North Korea Creates a New Type of ‘Serfdom’

nk-supermarket-money-crop.jpg A North Korean pays money to a cashier at a supermarket in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.

As a growing gap between North Korea’s rich and poor continues to get wider, more and more of the country’s poor are trying to find work as servants of the better off.

North Korea provides each of its citizens with a monthly salary. For much of the country’s history, this was enough to live on, but these days, the salary, which amounts to about U.S. $5 is nowhere near sufficient.

Now, in order to survive, people have had to go into business for themselves, and livings are made through a flourishing black market. But there are those who are left by the wayside who have only their labor to offer.

They now find themselves in an overcrowded labor market of poor people who want to be housekeepers for North Korea’s wealthy and elite, even when the government says that hiring personal servants goes against socialist ideals.

“The high-rollers have been hiring housekeepers to do all the housework for ages,” a source from North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

“The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] has publicly stated that the practice of hiring personal employees is in direct conflict with socialism, but they have made no effort to control the social issues created by the gap between the rich and poor,” the source said.

A second source provided examples of how the rich live it up when everyone else is struggling, all while touting the socialist party line.

“High-ranking officials and the rich spend hundreds of dollars on meals at a restaurants,” the second source said, adding, “[They] outwardly pretend to protect socialism, but privately, they are in collusion with the rich,” the source said.

“For this reason, the structure of the gap between the rich and the poor is worse than feudalism, where landowners lorded over serfs,” the source said.

The source said the rich have no trouble hiring temporary workers as needed.

“On important days, such as New Year’s Day or children’s birthdays, rich families will hire two or three housekeepers. They pay 10,000 North Korean won ($1.25) to do all the daily chores in the home, and about 50,000 won ($6.25) for cooking,” the second source said.

The second source said that such low wages are only made possible because there is an “increasing number of poor women that wish to be hired by the rich to make a living.”

Pyongyang Laundry

Another source, a resident of Pyongyang who had traveled to Dandong, a city on the Chinese side of the Sino-Korean border, described that there are entire classes of people living on the outskirts of the city hoping to find jobs doing laundry for the rich.

“As we enter the winter season, the number of laundry workers knocking on the doors of apartments in Pyongyang suddenly increased,” the second source said.

“They themselves are living hand-to-mouth, so they are offering hand-washing services to take care of the laundry for the wives of senior officials and the rich,” the second source said.

“In the winter, the downtown areas of Pyongyang [where all the elites live] is not properly supplied with electricity and water, so even washing machine owners cannot do their laundry,” said the second source.

“This is why senior officials and rich women are hiring women to do their laundry by hand,” the second source added.

The second source said that the laundry women must be perfect, because they can be easily replaced, as there are so many people willing to do the job.

“[They] regularly visit the house and collect the laundry, wash and iron it, then they must deliver it on time, because if the laundry is not clean enough or is not delivered on time, the [customers] can easily fire the laundry service providers and hire another one. This is making it very difficult for the poor women who have to work in very cold weather to make a living,” said the second source.

Depending on the amount of care and attention each type of clothing is being washed, there are premium and regular rates, according to the second source.

“White dress shirts requiring bleach and fine suits that need to be ironed are priced at $3 to $5 per kilogram, but regular laundry costs $1-$2,” said the second source.

While most of the people living within the Pyongyang city center are considered part of the country’s elite class, many ordinary residents live in the outer areas of the capital. The gap between these two classes has created a steady supply of people who need money and are willing to serve those who have it.

According to a 2018 report by the Korea Joongang Daily, the basic income in North Korea was uniform at 4,000 won per month ($ 0.50). A pack of cigarettes at that time was 5,000 won ($0.62).

The report noted that some workers receive bonuses on top of the basic income, with some earning as high as 400,000  won per month ($50) or as low as about 30,000 won ($3.75), necessitating a side hustle.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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