Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

Inside the lives of average North Koreans

Children stand before an ice sculpture at the Pyongyang Ice Sculpture Festival, marking the new year on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on December 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / KIM Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Children at the Pyongyang Ice Sculpture Festival in Dec. 2017.

North Korea is known for its nuclear threats, its propaganda, its concentration camps — and now, Kim Jong Un’s sister, who was dubbed the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea” during her visit to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Not exactly the most nuanced portrait of a country with 25 million people.

In his new book, “Ask a North Korean,” Daniel Tudor — a former Economist journalist and current Korean beer entrepreneur — wants people to understand the true lives of everyday North Koreans. Using translated essays written by defectors, the book covers topics from politics to pornography. “There’s never really any representation of North Korean people like you and me, who fall in love, argue, go shopping — and I think it’s necessary to present that,” Tudor said. “Here are the unfiltered opinions of people from North Korea, and there really should be more of that.”


Ideas spoke with Tudor at a coffee shop in Seoul, South Korea.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Below is an edited excerpt:

Why are aspects of North Korean lives — love, relationship, leisure, and spirituality — important for people around the world to hear about?

No one else really covers these topics, but they’re normal parts of life and the human experience. When we talk about North Korea, usually it’s always about rockets, Kim Jong Un — about something kind of exotic and weird and scary. There’s no normal, just human aspects of life being presented. All of this is just in interest of showing things as they are.

Organized religion is banned in North Korea, but that’s a relatively recent development. What’s its legacy?

Well, the early part of the 20th century saw a boom in Christianity. Many of the independence activists during Japanese colonization were Christian. To be honest, I don’t know why, but Pyongyang was particularly a hotbed of Christianity, and Kim Il Sung was from a family that followed Christianity. In some ways, he learned a lot from it. He just replaced God with himself. [laughs]

Why is fortune telling so popular in North Korea?

It’s something that has existed for thousands of years on the Korean peninsula, and no matter how strong Kim Il Sung and his descendants are at propaganda and control, you can’t erase thousands of years of history in just 60 or 70 years. People very high up in the regime use fortune tellers, and as far as I know, in almost any village there’s an old lady who will provide fortune telling as a service. It’s a part of spirituality but also of leisure.


There are also ajummas [middle-aged women] who will make booze — moonshine — for their small town in village, and it works as her family’s source of livelihood. All of this, if it were organized, I don’t think it would be allowed. But North Korea’s regime respects traditional Korean culture — that’s what they want to emphasize. They let some of these things slide.

Some of the North Koreans in your book speculated that the Kim regime is threatened by sexual freedom as a potential gateway to other kinds of freedom. What do you think?

I tend to be very skeptical of the idea that social change will lead to political change. But Kim Jong Un probably thinks that any possible social change is a threat. North Korea is a place where 11 guys can’t even make a football team without it being under the umbrella of a state organization. But these days, more liberal attitudes toward clothing — styles of dress — are coming. It’s nothing compared to South Korea, but there is a relaxed attitude toward those things.


Smuggled foreign media influence is a big influence. People are aware of South Korean fashion and South Korean ways of thinking — and South Korea is definitely cooler than North Korea, if you’re a young North Korean. I think most young people in North Korea have seen or are aware of South Korean fashion, pop music, what their actors and actresses look like.

On one hand, the essayists say it’s rare to even see a kissing scene in a North Korean movie — and meanwhile, there’s a market for smuggled foreign pornography and renting out spare bedrooms as sex hotels. Is this a sign that the government can’t control its people?

The political control is absolutely intact. But social control is much weaker at this point. If you say anything that goes against the official ideology of the government, you’re just as in danger as you would have been 10 to 30 years ago. But corruption is also a massive thing these days — you can sometimes just give police money and everything’s fine. In another country, like South Korea, one would look at corruption as a uniformly bad thing. But I tend to think of North Korean corruption as good.

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.