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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Quality of Life in North Korea

by | February 26th, 2013 | 06:30 am

In a previous post I reviewed some recent research coming out of KDI on the distribution of income in North Korea. A team from KINU has put out a new study based on 41 in-depth interviews with North Korean refugees on quality of life issues that can be read as a kind of companion piece.

Quality of life/well-being/happiness has increasing attracted social science interest as considerable international survey research has demonstrated that factors other than income have a significant impact on individuals’ self-assessed life satisfaction. As in the KDI study, the KINU research depicts an increasingly unequal society.  Class status is signaled by the quantity, quality, and variety of the diet; clothing; and housing, with the type of heating and availability of indoor plumbing among the markers.

The quality of life is also impacted by the disintegration of public services.  The report describes the “disintegration of the free compulsory educational system,” and increasing inequality and unequal access to education. The authors similarly describe “the illusion of “free” medical care and the widening inequality in the quality of medical services.” This is particularly notable insofar as health status is one of the single strongest correlates with self-assessed well-being.

The report also addresses differences in the quality of life due to political classification, generational differences, and gender. With respect to the latter, the authors observe that money has become central to gender relations.  The old joke goes that families used to want state officials and party cadre for sons-in-law; now they want military officers and entrepreneurs. Now it appears that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander: the study reports that with women playing a more central role in the marketized economy, in terms of the marriage market “men believe that it is important to meet women who are capable of earning income and building stable homes in order to fulfill a satisfying life.”