Everyday Life in North Korea

In conversation with Katharina Zellweger

Little is still known about North Korea and life behind the totalitarian curtain. Katharina Zellweger visited North Korea for the first time in 1995 and has since been to the country around 70 times, still counting. On June 7, she talked to Asia Society Switzerland about everyday life of the people living in North Korea, what change – socially and economically – they underwent, and how the continuing sanctions are slowly deteriorating what has recently changed for the better. In summary, Zellweger calls these changes the six M’s: market, money, mobile phones, motorcars, middle-class, mindset.

We learnt that farmers can cultivate a little garden for themselves, the crop they can then either keep, sell or barter; we learnt that through the ability to do somebusiness, a small middle class has emerged, which means that they can buy their kids nicer clothes or take them out to an amusement park; and we learnt that there are five taxi companies in Pyongyang competing for customers – they are still state owned, but by different government bodies. The economic opening came about mostly through sheer necessity: after the famine in the 1990s and increased sanctions, the state was just not capable anymore of providing everything for its citizens. So, like this, the North Korean government acted as an enabler for freedom to do things, said Katharina Zellweger. «The situation has modestly improved in recent years,» she mentioned and added, that there are playgrounds, initiated by Kim Jong-Un, there are mobile phones, which improved communication inside North Korea at least, and there are restaurants. 

Katharina Zellweger emphasized the critical role of the sanctions for the North Korean people: «I am not totally against sanctions, if they are targeted sanctions. But we have gone waybeyond that.» Instead of achieving their goal, which is to get the North Korean government to give up its nuclear missile program, they led to a more difficult situation for the poor, because it is not only harder to do business at all, it is also harder for the welfare humanitarian aid agencies.

Watch the conversation here:


Katharina Zellweger is a senior aid manager with over 30 years of field experience in Hong Kong, China and North Korea. She was based in Pyongyang for five years (2006-2011) as the North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), an office of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Focusing on sustainable agriculture and education exchanges, she gained a unique insight into humanitarian questions and security politics in North Korea. She currently manages the Hong Kong-based KorAid Limited, an NGO she established in 2015 to focus on serving children in institutions and people with disabilities in North Korea and in China.


All the revenues of the evening were donated by Asia Society Switzerland to KorAid.

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