North Korean Jobs Are Actually Better Than U.S. Jobs in 1 Important Way

When it comes to jobs and pay in North Korea, there’s a lot that is unknown. We know little to nothing about the life of the typical North Korean, since the secretive country does not share any information with the rest of the world.

How do North Koreans make their living, and what are their average wages? A BBC report estimates the country’s per capita income may actually be as low as $1,000 per year. Here we’ll take a look at the low wages and dismal job conditions that many North Koreans face. Also, there seems to be one bright spot for a large group of North Korean people that Americans of the same group do not enjoy. We’ll get to that as well.

1. The best jobs in North Korea pay terribly

CNN shot of North Korean factory workers

CNN investigated factory workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. | CNN via YouTube

  • Monthly pay considered a good salary: $62

Could you live on just $62 a month? It’s been said that is considered a good salary for North Koreans. That’s the typical salary 55,000 North Koreans were earning at the South Korean-operated Kaesong Industrial Complex. Workers at the complex, located six miles north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, built appliances and other products bought by South Korean companies. In addition to the salary for these highly sought-after jobs, the working conditions at the complex were said to be better than most other places in North Korea.

South Korea suspended operations at Kaesong in 2016, however, claiming it would no longer allow funds it paid for Kaesong to be used in the north’s missile and nuclear programs.

Next: These well-paying North Korean jobs are almost impossible to get.

2. Military officers can get big bonuses 

Military in North Korea

Military careers are considered among the most prestigious jobs in North Korea. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Monthly bonuses for four-star generals: $1,200 on U.S. dollar cash cards

Military careers are considered among the most prestigious jobs in North Korea. Men dominate this field, and the regime commands absolute power over the nation’s 24.5 million people. Few qualify for these jobs after serving the required time in the military, based on sociopolitical status. (More on that later.)

A source inside the country reported four-star generals receive monthly bonuses of $1,200 on a U.S. dollar cash card, in addition to their regular salaries. Three-star generals and two-star generals receive $1,000 and $700, respectively. The cards can be used at stores and restaurants equipped to handle foreign currency.

Next: $47 per month for factory work

3. Most factory workers earn less than $50 a month

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a factory.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a factory. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

  • Monthly factory worker salaries, per one report: $47

Working long hours in a factory can be a back-breaking job. While there is no widespread data available on the pay of North Korean factory workers, a Chinese businessman who operates a roofing material company and metal processing company in the North Korean city of Rason did provide some wage information. He reported he pays his North Korean workers about $47 per month, and claimed other Chinese companies there pay similar wages to North Korean employees.

In the same article, published by Radio Free Asia, another Chinese businessman, who is developing a mine in North Korea’s Hwanghae province, said he pays his workers $60 to $70 per month.

Next: Less than $20 a month for some sellers

4. Market traders earn less than $1 per day 

North Korean Merchant

Merchants in North Korea sell food, medicine, clothing, and electronics. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Monthly reported average income: $6 to $18

There are now more than 380 gray marketplaces in North Korea, where merchants sell a wide array of goods. Wares sold include food staples (corn, beans, noodles, and dried meat), over-the-counter-type medicine, suits for men and women, Japanese rice cookers, German refrigerators, and consumer electronics.

The majority of the middle class is in some way connected with such markets. For all the toil that is spent procuring goods to be sold in the market, the typical seller only brings home $6 to $18 per month.

Next: Back-breaking work on farms

5. Farmers are among the lowest-paid workers in North Korea 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a fruit farm

Lower-class citizens tend to be farmers. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

  • Farmers are now allowed to keep part of their harvests.

The lower classes in North Korea consist of farmers. Poverty is rampant in the rural North Korean areas. Motorized vehicles and machinery are not typically present. Elderly women can be seen tending to the farming, backs bent over rice paddies. Young boys often carry sacks along the side of the road. Under Kim Jong-un, farmers are allowed to keep part of their harvests. Farm workers reportedly earn as little as $1 to $2 per month.

Next: “Prisoners of war” for the World Cup stadium

6. Some North Koreans work abroad — but it’s no vacation

Zabivaka, the official mascot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, at Manezhnaya Square in downtown Moscow

Many North Koreans reportedly worked on the arena for the FIFA World Cup in Russia under dangerous conditions. | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

  • Wages of $10-$15, 11 hours per day

Some North Koreans have found work in other countries – but for reportedly low wages under sometimes dangerous conditions. For instance, at least 190 North Koreans were reportedly working on Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, Russia. The stadium is set to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer competition. One subcontractor reported that these immigrants worked long hours with no days off between August and November 2016. One 47-year-old North Korean worker died on site from a heart attack, he said, stating that the North Korean workers worked at least 11 hours a day for $10 to $15, seven days per week. “These guys are afraid to speak to people. They don’t look at anyone. They’re like prisoners of war,” he said.

A 2016 investigation was conducted into North Koreans working in conditions of forced labor in Poland, with their wages funding their home country’s military regime. This was sparked by the death of a North Korean working as a welder who suffered burns to 95% of his body in an accident reportedly due to inadequate equipment and unsafe practices.

Next: The most important factor is out of citizens’ control.

7. The caste system defines one’s place in society

  • 3 original songbun groups: Core, Wavering, and Hostile

In this article, we’ve looked at the dismal job situation in North Korea. Although many North Koreans would love what are considered the best job opportunities, not everyone can even try for them. Songbun is the system used in North Korea to determine citizens’ status based on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government.

The best job and educational opportunities (and possibly even more food) are given to the highest defined class, or descendants of those who actively resisted Japanese occupation before and during World War II. The lowest class are those who are descended from landowners, which were considered by the Communist government to be subversive. According to songbun, those in this group are not able to become high-ranking officials or live in North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where elite families have access to the best food and universities in the country.

Next: Unlike in the U.S., this group enjoys higher pay than others in North Korea.

8. Women actually make more than men

  • Percent of household income earned by women: 70%

Unlike in the United States, where women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, women in North Korea actually do make more money than men do. Women reportedly bring home more than 70% of the household income in North Korea. This is despite the fact that North Korea is a male-dominated society. Women mainly work as traders in the informal markets that have sprung up in North Korea in recent years. Most North Korean men are stuck in state jobs that pay little. Or, they serve in the army.

“If you want to live better up there, you’d better be a woman selling stuff in markets or marry a man who lives on bribes or taxes from these women at markets, or works for the regime’s trading firms,” said North Korean defector Kim Min-jung, as quoted in a Reuters report. She now runs a matchmaking service in South Korea for 1,500 women who left North Korea.

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