North Korean state media reported on November 20, 2022, that Kim Jong-un was accompanied by his daughter during a visit to the test launch site of the “Hwasong 17.”

North Korea has conducted at least 60 missile tests just this year, including the test launch of a new ICBM called the “Hwasong 17” on November 18. The country claims that its continued missile tests are protests against joint US-ROK military exercises and part of the nation’s strategy to build up its self-defense capabilities.

Meanwhile, the North Korean people are suffering terrible economic distress. The country faces a humanitarian crisis, with vulnerable classes such as the elderly, sickly and the young dying of starvation or disease. What do North Koreans think about the Kim Jong-un regime conducting so many missile tests? An ASIAPRESS reporting partner living in the northern part of the country gave his honest appraisal of the situation. (KANG Ji-won / ISHIMARU Jiro)

ASIAPRESS smuggles Chinese cell phones into North Korea to maintain communication with its reporting partners. The reporting partner interviewed below is a businessperson who lives in the northern part of the country. ASIAPRESS interviewed him on November 18, right before North Korea test fired the long-range ballistic missile “Hwasong 17.”

◆ Nothing indicates the outbreak of war

―― North Korea continues to shoot off missiles. How is the government explaining this to its people?

They’re just saying the missile tests are a response to war exercises by the US and South Korea, and telling people that they need to “stay alert and mobilized.” The only orders given have instructed neighborhood watch units to strengthen their security, namely by operating guard posts (checkpoints). There’s been no other emergency mobilizations at all. The authorities have also announced that they’re inspecting wartime emergency supplies, but there’s been nothing more than that.

―― Do people worry about the outbreak of war?

People don’t really worry about that, even if we’re to say that war was to break out immediately.

―― Why is that?

Why not? (If war breaks out) the leadership will be the ones busy. Ordinary people are already busy just trying to survive, so all they’re focused on is how not to starve.

A woman walks inside the barbed wire along the Yalu River. Photographed from the Chinese side in July 2021 (ASIAPRESS)

◆ It’s ridiculous that the government launches missiles when people are starving

―― Getting food on the table is extremely hard for people, so what do they think about (the government) shooting off so many expensive missiles?

During lectures, the authorities always talk about how we need to strengthen our military capabilities to protect our sovereignty because of the American threat. Nobody knows, however, how much money is spent (shooting off missiles), or how much rice that money could buy.

I know how much money is being spent, so I can wonder why the government shoots off so many missiles when people are starving, and that if the money was used to improve people’s lives, then they’d work hard and be loyal to the state. I think it’s very strange for (the government) to be making nuclear weapons and shooting missiles.

―― How difficult is it for people nowadays?

What else could it be? What is the most important issue facing people? People (who used) to eat three meals a day now only eat one or two meals because they can’t earn money and there’s no rice to buy. The government claims it’s all because of American sanctions and COVID-19. The government doesn’t provide even basic things for people to survive, and just tells them to work. It’s ridiculous.

―― North Korea’s missile capabilities have improved so much they are world-class. What do ordinary people think about that? Are they proud?

All of those things – nuclear weapons, bombs, and even missiles that strike the US – aren’t to protect us, right? The government says that (our military capabilities) are to ensure we don’t become slaves and to make us a strong country, and that we must strengthen our military capabilities despite the difficulties.

◆ Nobody needs missiles when they’re anxious about trying to get food on the table

In reality, everybody here is envious of people living in South Korea and China. They can’t even eat two meals a day and it’s getting colder, so they’re worried about obtaining firewood. Do you think people who worry about how they’ll survive care about missiles and nukes? They just worry about when they’re going to eat. Why would they need nukes?

―― Why are people envious of the Chinese?

China’s also a socialist country, but it has a special kind of socialism. Chinese people can travel to other countries and earn money. Individuals can do much of their own business as they please, so if we could do the same it’d be great. But if (the North Korean government) was to do that, the authorities would be scared that they’d lose power. That’s why they’re not opening up the country (like China has).

―― Do you think everyone thinks like that?

Everybody thinks that way. No matter how hard people work, they get nothing (in the way of pay or rations). People wonder whether they’ll be able to eat even one meal each until they die, what’ll they eat for dinner or for breakfast. That’s that difficulties people are facing now. The authorities just conduct crackdowns all the time. They think that the people will stay loyal to the country if they’re ignorant about the world. That’s why the government is preventing people from living freely.

(FILE PHOTO) A photo taken on the Chinese side of the border of N. Korean soldiers at a checkpoint in Sakju County, North Pyongan Province. A soldier with an armband appears to be checking the travel documents of passengers on a bus. Taken in September 2019 by ISHIMARU Jiro.

◆ My biggest regret is not defecting

―― So, the government is cracking down hard on people?

The government is suffocating them. The reason it’s cracking down on the families of defectors is because they’re living well thanks to the money they receive from abroad. Everybody is envious of them.

The biggest thing I regret is not defecting. Other people probably think the same. Controlling us is how those in power stay in power; it’s not to protect us. Everybody’s facing difficulties. What could I say to make you understand? You can’t understand.

The leadership needs to strengthen national defenses for themselves, but they could help us living here at the bottom of society to live better lives.

◆ No knowledge of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

―― Russia is currently engaged in war in Ukraine. How is the government explaining this to the people?


―― Russia invaded Ukraine.

I don’t know anything about that. I heard there’s a civil war in Russia. They don’t give us the details here. I heard there was a lecture for cadres saying that a military, no matter how good its equipment is, is useless if the soldiers lack spirit. There’s been no lectures (regarding the war) for ordinary people.

―― Russian President Vladmir Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons, causing concern throughout the world.

I don’t know anything about that. But if he used nukes, wouldn’t that mean the end of the world? (continued in the next installment >>)