Popular Jobs in N. Korea
In some movies set in South Korea in the 1970s and the ‘80s, bus conductresses appear at times. This occupation might be rather unfamiliar to the younger generation.
Also called “bus girls,” they would collect fares from passengers and introduce bus stops. But they disappeared a long time ago, with the emergence of new buses equipped for one-person operation.
As the times have changed, a number of new occupations have appeared. For example, there are “digital undertakers” whose main job is to delete clients’ personal data, such as online postings, photos and video clips from the web, if the clients do not want their private data to be left on the Internet. Also, as the number of households raising pets is rising, those who analyze behavioral issues in pets and design modification programs are becoming popular.
New jobs with unfamiliar names have emerged in the information technology sector. For instance, a growth hacker is someone who finds the most effective way of growing a business based on data analysis, while a person who develops and operates software is called a DevOps engineer.
In line with technological development and social change, some jobs have disappeared while new jobs have appeared. So, what kinds of jobs are popular in North Korea these days?
Today, we’ll learn about preferred occupations in North Korea from Kim Young-hee, director of the Public Relation Department at the Korea Hana Foundation.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
North Korea’s Constitution also stipulates, “Citizens have the right to work. All able-bodied citizens choose occupations in accordance with their wishes and skills and are provided with stable jobs and working conditions.” In reality, however, that is not the case.
In North Korea, individuals are not allowed to choose their jobs freely. Basically, jobs are assigned by the state. In the North, one’s dream job has little to do with what he or she is actually doing.
High school graduates are assigned certain jobs by the labor department at the people’s committee within enterprises in their region. If you graduated from an agricultural high school, you will be sent to a farm. If you graduated from a technical high school, you will work at a factory. If you graduated from a general high school, you could be sent anywhere.
In the case of college graduates, their major is taken into consideration. College graduates have an interview with a party official. In many cases, though, they can’t choose a place to work.
In the past, the best jobs in North Korea were high officials of the Workers’ Party and security officials. They were regarded as the best marriage partner. But these days, jobs with “an egg to eat” are gaining popularity. The phrase “an egg to eat” here means something useful or practical that guarantees extra income.
North Koreans often ask people around them if their jobs have any “egg to eat,” which refers to extra money. They could earn additional income by receiving bribes or pocketing money in secret while working. People prefer jobs that come with a lot of perks. Sailors, for example, are paid in dollars overseas and they may bring home foreign goods. They can sell the goods at the black market to earn extra income. Therefore, it is believed that sailors have a job with “an egg to eat.”
Popular jobs in North Korea are a little different from those in other countries. These days, one of the most favored jobs in the North is driving a taxi.
Taxis appeared in North Korea for the first time in 1987 and began to increase sharply after 2010. Taxi drivers in the North mostly meet foreigners or wealthy people. What is better, they can secure additional income or “an egg to eat.”
Taxi drivers receive fares in dollars. If the taxi fare is 37 dollars, foreigners generally give 40 dollars and let the driver keep the change. That’s how taxi drivers collect “an egg to eat.”
There are no female taxi drivers in North Korea, where taxi drivers are supposed to drive and also repair their vehicles, when necessary. If a taxi breaks down on the way, the driver should fix it himself. Would-be taxi drivers usually learn driving skills and repair techniques for a year. Women have never learned them, and only men work as taxi drivers in the North.
When I was little, there was at least one electronics repair shop in each neighborhood, although young people may not know that. In North Korea, repairing electronic appliances is one of the popular professions.
Until the mid-1990s, one neighborhood unit, known as inminban(인민반), in North Korea consisted of some 40 households. At the time, one unit had only a few electronic appliances, like one electric fan and one television set. Since the private market began to expand in the mid-and late-1990s, more and more households have bought electronic goods. Some families in Pyongyang have washing machines as well as mobile phones.
When there were few electronic products in the past, state-run shops would fix them. But these days, many people have electronic appliances, while the number of repairmen is small. In South Korea, people like to buy new electronic appliances. Some replace their smartphones with new ones in just two years. But electronic goods are pretty expensive in North Korea. Once they get one, they use it for a long time, fixing it over and over again. It is little wonder repairmen are one of the most sought-after jobs.
In May 2001, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that three new occupations appeared that year alone. The three occupations are engineers of computer control and management, computer typists and computer program writers. A computer engineer here refers to a person who oversees the automated production process overall, and a computer typist indicates an operator. A computer program writer means a programmer. The paper stressed that the country is committed to building an information-oriented economy, as seen in the introduction of computers in each economic area, resulting in the creation of computer-related jobs. The paper also reported that the number of workers engaging in intellectual labor, including computer-related work, is increasing rapidly.
Current leader Kim Jong-un has emphasized globalization and information technology since he took power, with relevant jobs enjoying popularity.
Until the early 2000s, computer-related majors were not very popular in colleges. But now, computer studies are immensely popular. That’s because those who majored in computer science can work as programmers, develop apps and make websites. They get paid well and have an opportunity to work in other countries, including China, to earn foreign currency. They prove useful in the military as well as in science and technology. Working in the IT sector is probably the best new job in the North.
In North Korea, serving food at famous hotels and restaurants or performing on stage is one of the jobs that have enjoyed steady popularity.
These “servers” are one of the most popular jobs among young women. They can experience foreign life while working at North Korean restaurants overseas, where their tips are two to three times higher than their monthly salary. They are not just service workers but professionals who belong to state institutions, such as an agency handling service activities overseas and the People’s Service Commission.
For foreign tourists visiting North Korea, it is a must to tour memorial halls and historical sites including Mangyongdae, the birthplace of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. There, tourists can find a heritage commentator who explains the sites in detail.
These commentators or instructors are also one of the popular jobs in North Korea.
A heritage commentator is not a job everyone can do. Servers and guides do not necessarily have to graduate from college. But heritage commentators should major in the revolutionary history of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in college. They should know everything about the former leaders. But not all college degree holders who studied the subject can become a heritage commentator. Would-be commentators should be good-looking and speak well, and they must sound very convincing to other people.
At Mt. Baekdu, there are commentators who explain the secretive military camp on the mountain. They are clad in the uniform that anti-Japanese guerilla fighters would wear. A heritage commentator is one of the desired professions.
As of late, those who are allowed to work abroad or jobs that pay wages in foreign currency enjoy continuous popularity. It is said that many North Koreans prefer to work in foreign countries. Here’s a North Korean defector.
The average monthly pay of workers in North Korea is four-thousand won, which is roughly 50 cents. But outside the country, workers can earn at least 150 dollars a month. Accommodations are poor, of course. But workers have hope that they can earn a lot of money after enduring for three years or so.
North Korean laborers working abroad cannot go out freely and live in dorms. Their living environment is extremely poor. They are given only part of the income they earned and they should return the remaining amount to the state. That’s why many raise the issue of their human rights.
Nevertheless, many North Koreans still hope to work overseas because they cannot earn much money at home, unless they earn extra income through market activities, which, of course, are far from easy. Once dispatched overseas, however, they can earn hundreds of dollars relatively quickly. They could also earn some more money by doing side jobs in secret. Competition for this job is very high. For those who have no connections, it is difficult to be sent to foreign countries as workers.
Now, North Korean laborers working abroad have been repatriated, due to international sanctions, with a small number of workers remaining in a few countries including Russia. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a majority of the workers have returned to the North.
In North Korea, jobs that are paid in foreign currency and come with stable, additional income are becoming increasingly popular. The trend reflects one side of social change in North Korea.