PYONGYANG – Equipped with a Japanese-brand television set, a sofa and a large wooden wardrobe, Kim Won Gyong’s four-room apartment could easily be mistaken for a middle-class dwelling in China, South Korea or Japan.
But hung on the wall of the living room are two objects rarely found in homes outside North Korea — portraits of the country’s deceased founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and heir, Kim Jong Il.
“As a family, we are always thinking about what we can do for the country and the people,” Kim said during a rare visit by the foreign media to a North Korean home.
Kim’s five-member household — him, his wife, his son, daughter-in-law and a grandson — was introduced to Kyodo News reporters by the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries in response to a request to visit an ordinary home.
The family’s apartment is on the sixth floor of an eight-story apartment building along the Taedong River that flows through Pyongyang, a five-minute drive from Pyongyang station.
A conversation with Kim during two separate visits to his home in October and November ranged from patriotic duties to the family income.
It also touched on the 65-year-old grandfather’s love and hope for his 2-year-old grandson, Nam Yae.
“We give the tastiest food to our grandson,” said Won Gyong, who retired from a government job in 2005. “We had a family meeting the other day to discuss how we should raise him. Since the 21st century is the era of science and technology, we decided we should make him a scientist.”
His daughter-in-law, 34-year-old Yong Ae, also said her son’s education is extremely important to her.
“My husband is an engineer and I am a researcher,” Yong Ae said, explaining why she is so interested in her son’s education. She said she is involved in publishing, while her husband, Kuk Nam, 35, works in a factory.
Won Gyong said the entire family’s monthly income depends on his son’s and daughter-in-law’s salaries, whose total fluctuates between 10,000 won (a little more than 8,000 yen) and 30,000 won, depending on how their work is evaluated.
That is believed to be somewhat higher than the salary of an average office worker in Pyongyang, who earns between 3,000 and 6,000 won a month.
Won Gyong said household expenses, including electricity, are about 500 won a month. The family receives rice, the main staple in North Korea, through the public distribution system.
Medical and education fees are free.
Won Gyong’s wife, 60-year-old Ki Sun, explained that while they buy clothes, some clothing was provided for a low price based on records that stores keep on each household, including the number of family members and the sizes for each of them.
Ki Sun said the family receives rice rations of 2.8 kg a day, as the working couple is entitled to 700 grams each, while Won Gyong receives 600 grams and Ki Sun and her grandson get 400 grams each.
“We pick them up twice a month,” Ki Sun said.
An international aid worker knowledgeable about the North Korean food situation said the Kim family appears better off than others in a country that suffers from a chronic food shortage.
“The standard line is 500 grams per person, so if the family is getting 700 grams per working person, they are quite privileged,” the aid worker said.
Ki Sun said she goes to neighborhood markets to buy vegetables, and meat is distributed on holidays by the government. Relatives living outside Pyongyang also sometimes send meat, rice and beans to the family.
“My specialty is rice cakes,” Ki Sun said when asked what she likes to make for her family. “The family members all love them. They like them more than meat dishes.”
Michael Harrold, who spent seven years in North Korea from the late 1980s and visited North Korean homes when he worked at a publishing house in Pyongyang, said that while the Kim family may be more privileged than some others in the capital, they should not be defined as “elite.”
“It sounds like they’re a bit better off than others,” he said. “But I don’t know if you can call them the elite. That’s a bit too strong.
Neither Harrold nor other analysts could say how big a portion of North Korean society lives like the Kims.
“Living in Pyongyang means the houses tend to be better than the countryside,” Harrold said.
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