North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a new apartment project in Pyongyang. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently begun proactive efforts to resolve issues with North Korea’s “speed battles” along with construction-related quality and safety problems that threaten the lives and safety of North Korean workers. Construction quality issues have long been a point of dissatisfaction for Kim. Indeed, this year Kim has emphasized the importance of the construction sector and is trying to bring about major changes in the industry through training for construction workers and managers. He seems to expect advances can be made in the construction sector through “normalization” of design, building, quality control, and environmental processes.

Starting last year and continuing into this year, Kim has also been concentrating on building large-scale apartment complexes largely in Pyongyang. These apartments will be able to house tens of thousands of families. Of course, it is perfectly natural for the Supreme Leader to be actively finding ways to solve issues faced by his people. 

However, I am curious about people living in other regions who are excluded from enjoying Pyongyang’s high-end residential complexes, which are typically allocated to only a select group of people in the country.

It is often said that the basic necessities of life are “clothing, food, and housing.” Humankind has solved the problem of clothing. However, we have not yet solved the issue of food. Food is distributed unfairly, depending on one’s local conditions, environment, and economic situation. There are even some areas where people still die from starvation. Then, what about housing? 

Where we live is directly connected to the economic power of a nation or the financial situation of individuals. The issue of housing in poor areas is not something that can be easily fixed in the same way as supplying medicine or food. There is little else to be done other than have residents of these areas or the government solve housing issues. Unlike in South Korea, socialist North Korea does not allow its people to own their own homes. Put another way, the North Korean government distributes housing to its people. Of course, North Korea’s housing policies are not something that South Korea’s youth and homeless should be enticed by.

After the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea moved forward with post-war recovery efforts to erase the ruins inflicted by the war. According to Kim Tae Woo’s book, “The Bombing,” North Korea’s major cities and villages were reduced to ashes through carpet bombing by American aircraft. He states numerous industrial facilities and buildings, including houses in which people were residing, were destroyed. North Korea had no choice but to solve its housing crisis from scratch. Ninety percent of North Korean housing since the war was built during Kim Il Sung’s lifetime. Since Kim’s death in 1993, North Korea’s lackluster supply of housing has been due to the country’s poor economic conditions during the Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un periods.

North Korea’s “housing supply rate” is just 60-70%, which is very low compared to South Korea’s rate of 104%. Given that most North Korea’s houses were constructed between the 1950s and 1990s, the country’s housing environment is poor due to the lack of houses and their quality. In short, houses that are anywhere from 30 to 70 years old make up 90% of the homes in North Korea today. 

In South Korea, many apartments meet set criteria to be rebuilt after turning just 30 years old. Indeed, people’s quality of life is deeply connected with the houses they live in. Excluding regions where North Korea’s upper class resides, like Pyongyang, it certainly feels as if efforts to improve much of the country’s housing have been abandoned for the past several decades. Ultimately, North Koreans face many difficulties because their country does not have ample supplies of energy or electricity like South Korea does. A house that cannot be heated, an essential element for it being a home in the first place, cannot be called a house. 

In fact, North Koreans likely suffer cruel winters in uninsulated homes. Building materials like insulation for houses can only be supplied when industries to produce those items are developed. However, in North Korea’s socialist planned economic system, it is difficult for construction-related industries to develop. Markets must be formed to ensure the proper flow of supply and demand, while consumer demand should be driving forward industries. Government-led industries do not move according to the desires of the people because they do not listen to the voices of consumers. 

It is hard to understand why a country like North Korea, which is rich in coal and other sources of energy, allows its people to suffer in the cold because of a lack of fuel for heat. If North Korea allowed the free operation of energy industries, this problem could easily be solved. All of this is likely because North Korea’s system operates not due to consumer desires, but state-led industries that focus only on what the Supreme Leader says. 

Human rights refer to the guarantee of human dignity and basic rights. If the majority of North Koreans are experiencing difficulties due to the winter cold and poor housing environments, their concerns should be ours as well. If, during future efforts to mend inter-Korean relations, our talks with North Korea can include even a small amount of discussions about this issue, we will be helping to protect the basic rights that North Korea’s people should be enjoying.

Translated by Jason Mallet

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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