Despite Kim Jong Un's triumphant calls for prosperity and reports of progress from diplomats in Pyongyang, everyday North Koreans still say that every day is a struggle. In fact, if the vignettes offered up in a just published New York Times exposée are at all representative of the life of your average North Korean, things are downright miserable. There's a terrible food shortage -- as usual -- and electricity flickers on and off with not apparent regularity. The government offers little tolerance for criticism or alternative ways of life, like Christianity. The best any of them can hope for is to escape to China on a temporary visa and, if they're really lucky, find work in a factory there.
There's some evidence that suggests North Koreans are more cognizant of their impoverished situation because they're more conscious of what's going on outside their country's borders. Just last week, Laura Ling, the former Current TV reporter who found herself imprisoned for months in North Korea, wrote a column for The Los Angeles Times about how the shiny veneer that Kim Jong Un has been showcasing to the world is flimsier than ever. "Despite the culture of fear that permeates North Korean society, food shortages and the Gulag-style prison camps that hold an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners, there are signs that the government is losing its iron grip," she writes. "Some televisions in the border region, for example, are now able to pick up programming from neighboring China, providing some North Koreans access to news from outside the country."
If we know anything in these first six months of Kim Jong Un's rule, it's that change needs time. The country's income discrepancy is a natural part of economic development, experts say, and even though it's a bummer that the folks reading the Bible in North Korea think the government will kill them if they find out, progress takes patience. "People leapt to very sweeping conclusions about reform, but it’s not a switch that happens in a day," Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, told The Times. "On the other hand, the privileged few who have a monopoly on certain sectors are making out like bandits."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.