Dec 05

Housing in North Korea

North Korea is widely considered the worst place to live in the world. In reality, it is not as worse, but living in North Korea is just… very different than rest of world, life can be good as long as you do all what the government wants and obey stupid laws. While the industry is lagging several decades behind rest of world, the population is one of most educated in the world, reaching a level of order and discipline that should be example for any citizen of the outer world.
Apparently is a developed country, with high literacy rate, beautiful architecture and well-planned cities, but in 1990s after collapse of Soviet Union, the economy felt down and made North Korea one of the poorest countries in the world, and the single well educated country suffering by famine. They currently survive only because of foreign food aid.

Pyongyang is one of the cleanest, least polluted and least traffic jammed cities in the world!

Architecture and housing

Pyongyang is well planned city with wide boulevards, some leading to nowhere (example: Tongil Street, shown in above photo), massive apartment buildings with huge spaces between them, and even more massive monuments, good public transport and low pollution. Perhaps in attempt to show to the world that they are not a poor nation, but in my opinion are money-wasting unnecessary projects which caused population to be poor.
Ryugyong Hotel was planned as tallest hotel in the world, having 105 floors, construction began in 1987, abandoned in 1992, resumed in 2008, still under construction.
Rungrado May Day Stadium is the largest stadium in the world, opened in 1989, having 150.000 seats.

North Korean apartments blocks are massive like the South Korean ones, 40-storey skyscrapers already existed in oldest Google Earth satellite photo from 2000, they are likely to be built during 1990s famine or more likely, 1980s golden era, may have been the tallest public housing in the world until completion of 50 floors Pinnacle @ Duxton in Singapore in 2009 (further verification required).
Unlike South Korea and Russia which are dominated by rows identical buildings, Pyongyang have a vibrant skylines, old 4-5 storey walk-up and 8-10-storey blocks are mixed up with newer, 20-40 storey high-rise apartment buildings. Towers are mixed up with traditional houses, for example in Pipa-dong.
Apartments are provided for free, this forum post says that average apartment size in North Korea is 150 square meters, but is unsourced and I do not believe. Measuring the blocks using Google Earth I can say that apartments are oversized but not as big, maybe around 100 sqm. Or maybe the 150 sqm is the apartment size in certain complex designated for political elite.
The apartments are quite spartan inside, compared with South Korean ones full of electronics. I would like to know what heating system they have!

Mansudae Apartment built at Changjon Street is most modern and famous residential development. Few old buildings were demolished in 2011 and 15 glass-facade buildings in various heights up to 44 floors were built in just 9 months, according successive Google Earth historical satellite imagery. Opened in April 2012 at celebration 100 years from birth of Kim Il Sung. Video of proposed development.

A 23-storey block collapsed in May 2014. (map location),. A bit unusual for North Korea to report such accidents, but this was too big to be hidden. Supposedly it was still under construction but already housed 92 families, but number of victims was not disclosed. In the same time photos show that windows were not moved for years, and the debris was cleared in just 4 days, suggesting that the block was not in use and demolition controlled. Quite confusing?

If you are looking for North Korean apartment floor plans, you can check the Google Maps and try to discover under construction blocks (example location 38.96550 125.73750). No other forms of floorplans are available on internet… sadly.

See this video, inside of North Korean apartment, another video. also Kisu Faculty Housing. We do not know if the typical apartments are like that or that apartment was made more modern solo for propaganda.
Satellite photos shows that other cities are much worse than Pyongyang, some cities do not even have a single car driving around.

Traditional Korean houses vs Mansudae Apartment, built 2012
Houses in West Pyongyang Modern apartment block in Pyongyang

Kwangbok Street, exit to Nampo, with apartments up to 40 floors
Kwangbok Street Kwangbok Street
Kwangbok Street Typical apartment block in Pyongyang

Tongil Street, famous 10-lane, 4-km long boulevard heading to nothing, plus 40-storey apartments.
Tongil Street

More random photos, notice in first photo few old ugly houses between apartment towers!
Pyongyang East viewed from Juche Tower Pyongyang skyline from top of Juche Tower
Decaying apartment block in Pyongyang Typical apartment block in Pyongyang

Above photos were found on Panoramio using Google Earth and selected the best of them. Credits to their authors.
For more photos download Google Earth and browse yourself for more photos.
See also photos with beautiful buildings on Skyscrapercity.


North Korea use an unique economy model that is not ruled by money. The government is giving you a job and also a free accommodation. You cannot choose where live, living in Pyongyang is privilege for the healthiest citizens, to give a good image to foreign visitors. Handicapped, disabled and retired people are sent to countryside. There are no homeless people or beggary in North Korea.
For work performance you are awarded with free gifts rather than money. How much North Koreans earn is unknown, but less than 100 USD per month, is also unknown where they can spend the money, since the government give a lot of things for FREE, including housing, intranet connection to Kwangmyong, public transport, healthcare, etc… all these are free. I also believe that cars, TV sets and computers cannot be bought with money and are given for free to privileged people only.
Thus, good-working people can enjoy higher standards of living compared with other countries with similar income.
However, there are emerging black markets, where people trade goods privately. Even apartments can be transacted illegally by bribing officials to change your address.

There is no street lighting, except for monuments (including monumental boulevards in Pyongyang). See how black is North Korea viewed from satellite at night!
North Korea self praise for having over 6000 km of railways, 80% of it being electrified, compared with only 3250 km in South Korea (according Wikipedia), but the north infrastructure is in danger state that slow down the trains while southern trains are running at 350 kmph in full safety.
Roads in North Korea are estimated to be about 30000 km of which only 5% paved.
North Korea have own automobile manufacturers, Sungri and Pyeonghwa, producing several hundred cars per year. Watch a North Korean car commercial (actually is a Fiat Albea/Siena made under license).
There’s a big confusion regarding car ownership. Some sources say that any citizen is allowed to own cars (but why the roads are almost empty?), other sources say that all cars are owned by political elite and eligible businesses. It is unknown if cars are sold for money or given for free to privileged citizens.

According Wikipedia, North Koreans got one car per 100 people, while the South Koreans got one car per 2.3 people. This keep pollution low and people healthy as they walk and cycle. However Google Earth satellite imagery and various YouTube videos made by tourists shows that number of cars increased significantly today compared with year 2000.
Roads are dominated by trucks (goods vehicles), Romanian Dacia (most common taxicab), Soviet Lada, some unknown Chinese cars, but nowadays there are many luxury European cars (why they import cars instead of raising local production?).

There is a big contrast of development between Pyongyang and rest of country. Cars are a rare sight, refuelling stations are non-existent.

The BIG highway to Nampo
Pyongyang - Nampo Highway

Kaesong, notice the lack of street lighting
Kaesong street Kaesong apartments


Only government is allowed to operate radio and television. To prevent people access to information about outside world, all radio and television sets should be registered at state department, where are sealed to receive only government stations, any manipulation to receive foreign broadcast leads to prison.

Connection to the Internet supposedly not exist in North Korea, except for the high ranked officials and some hotels. However, their computers are connected via Kwangmyong, North Korea’s own internet-like network, accessible only via dial-up, for free, filtered content from the Internet are placed on Kwangmyong, primarily from science fields. However, some people smuggled satellite internet terminals, which are confiscated and often resold to population by corrupt officers. Do note that according StatCounter, the websites are getting significant internet traffic from North Korea starting from 2010. Probably they just granted internet access privilege to more people.
IT industry is developing and make North Korea an IT outsourcing destination, thanks to skilled and cheap workforce. Probably they saw how successfull is outsourcing to India so decided to join, despite of conservative communication. How this work without allowing many people to access the internet… no idea!

Mobile phones were introduced in 2002, banned in 2004, reintroduced in 2008, and cannot dial out of country. Foreigners are not allowed to use mobile phone in North Korea, so they need to leave them at airports.

Look carefully at Kim Jong-il funeral, there are rumors that people who do not cry enough were jailed, but you can see that while the camera is aimed to people who mourn, in background just few are mourning. Apparently this has been directed for purpose of showing to local and foreign media that people loved their leader.
And yes, people actually LOVE their government, see video diary made by a north korean girl, criticizing capitalist system where the money rule everything.

Moranbong Band is the first music band from North Korea reaching international popularity. Is rumored that the girls forming the band are selected by, and the lyrics of their songs are written by Kim Jong-un.

North Korea TV occasionally broadcast negative foreign news selected to give impression that North Korea is “people paradise on the earth” while that rest of world is about poverty and violence.
However, too much info came from south so during 1990s the government had to admit that South Korea enjoy higher standards of living.
For example South Koreans launching video cassettes via hot air balloons over the DMZ, containing foreign news about 2011-2012 Arab world uprising or anti-regime news. Most North Koreans do not know the truth about outer world, they do not realize how bad is their government, to start a uprising.

Korean Central News Agency does have a website kcna.kp and provide to World positive news from North Korea and a lot of fake praises to the leader by foreign people, while tourists are the only other info of about what happens in North Korea.
Any person is allowed to visit North Korea as tourist, but few people are willing to do, however most of them returned with great memories. Probably I will visit myself to visit when I will be richer.
Most tourists are housed in Yanggakdo Hotel located on an island in middle of Taedong River, or Koryo Hotel located in city centre near railway station, far away from poor areas. During night you are locked in hotel, during day you are permanently attended by local guiders watching where you go and what photos do you take. You are not allowed to roam freely through city, or interact with local people (but these guiders aren’t locals? Yes they are but are not allowed to tell you about their personal life).
Photography is theoretically allowed only in designated places, but to go in these places you may travel through not-so-good areas of city, you are told to not take photo of anything that depicts poverty, even if poverty exists all over the world, at end of day they may check your cameras and delete offensive pictures, however guiders are slightly corrupt and many photos and videos showing the unwanted side of North Korea popped the internet.
Example: Eric Lafforgue photos on dailymail.co.uk.

But little info is know about how the life of normal North Koreans, where they live, what they eat, education and medical system, what forms of income they have and where can spend the money.

Concentration camps

A lot of offences lead to prison, where you will be a slave forced to work and eventually die by starvation, hard work or torture. North Korea have the biggest ratio of imprisoned citizens in the world, by the far more than United States which is officially the country with most prisoners, because the North Korean government deny the existence of prisons so nobody knows exactly how many were imprisoned and how many died in prisons.

Propaganda lies & mysteries, things that need to be clarified

For those who do not know: Korean peninsula was divided in 1945, American troops withdrew from south in 1949, none of countries liked the division and both dream a reunification of Korea but under their own regime. In 1950 North Korea invaded the South Korea. The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed three years later, creating a four-kilometer wide buffer zone where nobody would enter, known as the Demilitarized Zone.

The government promote North Korea as the “Heaven on the Earth”, people are brainwashed and do not know that there is a better life outside their country, that on the earth exist more advanced countries, that humans reached the moon, etc. People thinks that their Kwangmyong is the only (or at least the first) computer network in the world, or that their Kwangmyŏngsŏng program makes Korea the only (or the first) country in the world that reached the space.
It also promote an ideology that United States can’t resist attacking other countries for no reason, that US soldiers are still present in South Korea, ravaging the country, and they can save the South by destroying United States.
North Korea spend a lot of money on military to prevent a so-called imminent attack from United States, creating an apparent threat to other countries while in my opinon they just want to scary other countries from invading North Korea. People talk about war all time. There are lots of books for sale titled like “Americans of South that started Korean war”. In Pyongyang, most billboards do not advertise products but anti-US propaganda paintings with Koreans beating US soldiers, ripping American flag, etc.

Kim Jong-il hate America but his funeral used an american-made Lincoln Continental limousine! They also use PCs with Microsoft Windows and Mac computers made in USA.

I am curious how does look a DPRK geographic atlas. What they know about our world? I guess that they know that human live all around the earth, and natural features, as these info exists before communism installment, but they may be lied about technology level of rest of world.

Do they know how many countries are in the world, or what is the world population, or which are largest cities? Probably they know about USSR as they was main economic partner, but how the Korean government explained to their citizens the break-up of USSR and the fall of communism?

The claim that North Korea is totally isolated country is FALSE. The government do everything to prevent people access to foreign info, but in the same time they allow everyone to enter, tourists are main source of foreign info. Any foreign publication regarding North Korea is confiscated at customs, tourists are guided and not allowed to talk with locals, but the guiders themselves are locals, tourists can tell them foreign news and they can spread the news?

In Kaesong Industrial Region, South Korean companies employ North Korean workers. The south staff can talk with north workers, giving info about life in South Korea, especially as the language is not a barrier.
North Korea participated in Olympics, probably only the sport teams are allowed by government to leave country, and are not allowed to tell to their families what they see overseas.
The government, when speaking to foreign media, deny the existence of prison camps, but the citizens do know their existence? These camps employ a lot of people to take care of inmates, their family relatives do not know where they are working?
I am confused how does the (lack of) freedom of speak is working there. Probably they are taught from young to not talk each other about problems and not even tell about job to their relatives, and always listen to government media?


Let’s hope that some day, United Nations will bomb North Korea and kill the fucking Kim Jong-il kill all Kim family, to restore the human rights…
or maybe this should not happen, because North Korea main allied is China, which have the biggest army in the world.

What is possible, will be an anti-government uprising like in Romania 1989 revolution, but unlikely to happen, because North Korean government is improving living conditions since 2000s and people are brainwashed about even better living conditions of outside world so they love the leader, compared with Romanian living conditions that were worsened by Nicolae Ceausescu in 1980s compared with previous decade, and people were hating the leader but not showing this until enough number of people joined against the leader.

Even if Kim regime fall, Korea reunification is not possible without a big plunge of economy of the south, which South Koreans will not accept. The economy difference is much bigger than in case of East and West Germany reunification. North Korea will need a period of transition and massive investment, to be ready for reunification.

Sources & further read

– Wikipedia
– Personal analysis of photos and satellite imagery
– The F.A.Q. / Rules of various travel agencies (beware, they hide bad things to attract tourists)
Nice photos: http://www.retrodprk.com/ – 1980s and 1990s photos.
Also: Tourist who took camera inside North Korea expecting to find ‘really, really sad people’ is shocked to discover a happy country

– Various travel blogs, photos and videos of tourists, for example Sue Wombat and Cezar Dumitru, romanian tourist in North Korea comparing with communist Romania (romanian language)

Page launched in 2012 and expanded over time with additional info.

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