What is it like to live in North Korea? What is life like in North Korea? And can you live in North Korea long-term? Here is our guide to if you can be becomne an expat in the DPRK!
A hell of a lot has is written about life in North Korea that is frankly untrue, or at best highly exaggerated. ’At YPT we try and position ourselves firmly in the middle of this, between the hawks and people such as the Korean Friendship Association (KFA).
I’ve previously written about how many foreigners live in North Korea but what’s daily life like if you actually live in the DPRK full time?
Expats in Pyongyang
The majority of foreigners that live in North Korea tend to be diplomats, UN folk, or people involved in the aid industry (that’s right, I said ‘industry’). There is a specific area of Pyongyang that houses foreign residents, located in the diplomatic compund. Rent is not cheap – whilst not exactly set in stone, foreign residents can expect to pay around 2000 euro per month for their apartment. In addition – and contrary to popular belief – foreigners do, indeed, have internet access.
Foreigners in North Korea – be they businessmen or diplomats – are required to hire local staff, with whom they spend a lot of time. Again, contrary to popular belief, foreigners living in Pyongyang are free to go where they please, visit whichever restaurants they like, and generally live a relatively normal life. Foreign residents are not given rations, however, and do their grocery shopping in hard-currency stores like Kwangbok Department Store.
Living in North Korea as a diplomat
There is no one size fits all when it comes to diplomats that live in North Korea. Particularly with regards to the current Covid-19 crisis when most have left. Previously though UK embassy staff would do 3 weeks in and 1 week out of the country. Essentially being time in Beijing for a bit of R&R
By far the biggest missions in North Korea are China and Russia, meaning that they both also provide the most expats in North Korea. .
Living in North Korea – nightlife of Pyongyang
In terms of nightlife, options are obviously quite limited, and there are essentially two choices: YPT favourite the ‘Diplo’ and the ever-infamous Random Access Club, which is run from the UN compound. These are the only two “expat bars” in Pyongyang. There are though a number of local joints that are popular with Pyongyang expats, which much like anywhere change with the fashions.
Foreigners can also travel around much of North Korea, but need to apply for – and receive – permission to travel to other cities such as Wonsan . North Korean expats can therefore travel around and see a lot of the DPRK in their spare time.
To read our guide to Pyongyang at night click here.
Expats outside of Pyongyang
Discounting Rason (which I’ll cover momentarily), there are few foreigners living outside of Pyongyang. The one exception to this is Hamhung, where a large NGO community stay in the Majon Hotel (one of the nicest in the country)!
Hamhung itself is one of the most interesting cities in North Korea and the beaches are arguably the best. Quite what living here would be like is another question though!
Living in the Rason Special Economic Zone
Rason was the first (and basically the only) SEZ in North Korea. It is also technically visa-free (although a travel permit is still needed). Foreigners living in Rason have an enormous amount of freedom in comparison to other parts of the country, and can roam around and largely do as they wish.
There is a huge amount of Chinese that live in Rason doing business, and even branches of Chinese banks in the city.There are also a number of Russians connected to the port who get to call Rason home.
As for non-Chinese, or Russians in Rason they are few and far between. We do though know of a Korean-American who lives here full time, as well as a Ukrainian family, who also run a very good restaurant here.
This is also not only the easiest place for a foreigner to live in the DPRK, but also open a company in North Korea. Foreigners can own busineses in North Korea if they are structured a joint-venture with the state.
Special note about Rason, they have great Street Food for expats!
The Imperial Hotel and Casino
The main place for foreigners living in Rason is the Imperial Hotel and Casino.Almost all of the staff and customers at the hotel are Chinese and it is probably the most deluxe hotel in the country. It is hard to say exactly how many live here, but one would assume it is in the hundreds.
Interestingly the Chinese owned hotel enjoys almost extra-territorial status (like an embassy) in North Korea. Oh and they have nothing to do with the Emperor Group od Hong Kong – as they were to e-mail and tell us….
Can you live in North Korea?
Can you live in North Korea? If you’ve been following so far, you will see that yes, it is indeed possible to come and live in North Korea IF you have a job and a reason. Although these tend to be in specialized fields and it is not easy to just move to Pyongyang at a whim.
Amazingly we get an enormous amount of e-mails from people telling us they want to live in North Korea, usually detailing why they would make great “citizens”. You can’t do this, and we can’t help with this. Which brings us to the next question!
Can you defect to North Korea?
The Cold War is over I’m afraid, or at least mostly over. Many people think they can defect to North Korea, probably because they have seen Crossing the Line, a truly great documentary. The realism though is that in 2023 you cannot just defect to North Korea, unless you have extremely high value. Assuming you’re not one of these people, visiting is the best you can hope for.
Amazingly we get e-mails almost on a daily basis from people who want to defect, although as the case of Travis King recently showed, it really is not that easy.
What is life like in North Korea for expats?
Again there is no one size fits all on this, an English diplomat will have a different take on things to a Chinese student for example. Certainly when it comes to Pyongyang though people lead a life without the restrictions put on tourists. Things such as visiting private markets are part of daily life rather than being forbidden fruit.
Most would also work, study, or be in close contact with North Korean citizens giving them what one might call a unique insight into the country.
What did I feel living in North Korea?
Speaking from personal experience I have spent a month straight in North Korea. This might not strictly be called living there, but in my mind at least was long enough to give my two cents worth. To me I found it a lot more normal than I had expected. I had an internet enabled phone, so could keep in touch with “home”, without being glued to online.
What interested me most though was when we did not have tourists groups and I got to do “normal things”, like take a taxi in Pyongyang, top-up my phone and pick my pwn restaurants! Again as tourists you are used to having your food included, but when you live here, you go into a restaurant, pick your food and pay accordingly.
Now, whilst the month I spent living in North Korea is one of the best things I have ever done, I will add a caveat. On returning to China I did go a bit crazy on the many things I missed. I think McDonalds in Dandong might have been the first of those things. And that was my personal experience of what it is like to live in North Korea.
Would I go and live there again? It is actually my desire to live in Rason and open some kind of business there, which I think would make for some seriously interesting blogging!
What is life like in North Korea for North Koreans?
What is life like in North Korea for North Koreans? This is not only a difficult, but also loaded question. There really is no one size fits all answer. Much like any nation when you live in North Korea your life to an extent reflects your social status and where you live. Life in Pyongyang for example tends to be better than the countryside.
The best way to see how people live in North Korea is of course to come and see it for yourself.
Want a taste of what life in North Korea is like for yourself? Join us on one of our many tours there!