Perceptions of Time in North Korea

North Koreans work on organized activities.

North Koreans work on organized activities.

Although North Korea is a unique country in many ways, it has some things fundamentally in common with any other country in the world. For example, there are 24 hours in a North Korean day.

But North Korean refugees often say they perceive time differently after settling in South Korea. They say that outside North Korea, a day feels extremely long.

Lee, a recent North Korean refugee, says that he used to walk a distance of 50 kilometres in order to reach a market where he could sell his wares. Toting a heavy bag, he went through mountainous routes in order to avoid the authorities. It took him several days and nights to complete the journey.

“In North Korea, traveling is never easy, and controls like checking for travel permits are very strict. Going anywhere takes a lot of time. A distance that would take 2 hours to travel in South Korea takes several days in North Korea,” he says.

Moreover, refugees recall how the amount of time needed in order to complete a task is many times that of the time it takes in South Korea. For this reason, ordinary North Koreans must begin their day before sunrise.

“It took a lot of effort just to get the fire going, so that we could prepare breakfast. On days when the weather was not so favourable, the fire didn’t catch very well and it took even longer. It normally took around 2-3 hours to prepare a meal,” says Park, another recent refugee from North Korea.

She adds, “In order to do the washing, we carried our clothes to the stream.” A washing machine, sometimes described as the appliance which most aided in the emancipation of modern woman, is beyond reach for ordinary North Koreans. This is not because the country is pre-industrial.

In fact, North Korea was more prosperous than the South following the Korean War, which suggests mismanagement by the leadership as the primary cause of North Korea’s plight.

Another time-consuming matter is enforced participation in state events. Despite the nation’s social infrastructure being weak in terms of welfare, methods of social control are strictly enforced. Consequently, North Korean refugees who settle in South Korea say that their days feel strangely elongated.

“In South Korea, people wake up and shower comfortably, have a simple breakfast, and take public transportation to get to work quickly. In the evening, there is time to socialize with others, and you can choose what you want to do: watch a movie, go for a drink and so on. So much can be done in one day. It feels as if I am living three days in one,” Park says.