One of the most significant barriers that separates the urban and rural areas in North Korea is the resident registration system. Every household in North Korea must be registered to their location of residence. The aim of the system is not only to designate specific residential locations, but also to determine people’s status, which sets apart city dwellers from farmers. It is almost impossible for any individual to change their status, and it is passed down to every family’s next generation.
There are exceptions, but the status of almost every child is largely determined at birth by that of the parents. Even rural women who marry urban men cannot change their children’s status.
At present, only those who have obtained authorization (residents in North Korea must acquire residence authorization numbers from security agencies (police and political police), the government, and the Workers’ Party) to reside in Pyongyang and Pyongsong have the right to live permanently in these cities. Although restrictions on city residency have been somewhat eased since the 1990s, the resident registration system and associated discriminatory practices remain in place.
There are ways to get transferred to another place of work by the Workers’ Party or to find employment in a business in the city by gaining approval from the relevant division at the Ministry of Labor. However, when it comes to acquiring a residence permit in a larger city, there are far fewer options available. Certain areas, such as Pyongyang and Pyongsong in South Pyongan Province, require residents to have residence authorization numbers, and it is also difficult to live in or move to cities in the border regions such as Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province and Hyesan, Ryanggang Province.
Recently, it has become relatively easier for high-performing university graduates to obtain residency permits, as many cities in North Korea have been promoting knowledge-based industries. Wealthy individuals who give bribes, invest heavily in businesses in the city, or start new businesses are also able to get a ‘red-stamped’ residence document.
Unfortunately, this system is not accessible to the large majority of North Korea’s residents. According to multiple Daily NK sources in South Pyongan Province, around 10,000 Pyongsong residence permits were sold for an average of 12 million KPW (approximately 1,500 USD) each between 2016 and 2017. Such costs are beyond the means of most North Koreans.
Numerous migrants low on money are staying in cities without official permission and are in a state of constant anxiety. Yet they cannot simply leave out of fear of unexpected crackdowns, as their family livelihoods are at stake.
Cities like Pyongsong that are experiencing a boom in the market economy are in need of more labor. Nonetheless, North Korea’s policymakers are reluctant to implement policies to alleviate residency restrictions, even though they acknowledge the need for a migration stabilization policy.
Kim Jong Un broke away from the past after participating in an historic summit in Singapore. North Korean bureaucrats should follow Kim’s footsteps and seek to institute change by aggressively tearing down old and corrupt systems that are unable to protect even the basic rights of the people.
The success of the U.S.-North Korea summit and complete denuclearization of North Korea would mark the beginning of an age of peace. However, even in these times of peace, North Koreans must live under conditions similar to martial law. The first step to becoming a responsible member of the international community is to address malicious laws that do not guarantee the basic rights of residents.