Average Salary in North Korea

1. Average Wages

The average salary in North Korea is notoriously difficult to ascertain due to the secretive nature of the economy and the lack of publicly available economic data. However, various sources suggest that the average monthly salary for a North Korean worker is relatively low by international standards, reflecting the country’s isolated and controlled economic system. Reports have indicated that state employees often receive wages that are insufficient for covering basic needs, leading them to engage in informal economic activities to supplement their income.

Providing a single, definitive average monthly salary for North Korea is challenging due to the unique economic situation there. Here’s a breakdown to give you a clearer picture:

  • Official Salary: This is typically between 5,000 and 10,000 North Korean won (KPW) per month, which translates to roughly $1-3 USD based on black market exchange rates [source for North Korea average salary].

Why it’s not a true reflection:

  • Informal Markets: Most North Koreans rely heavily on income from unofficial markets and side hustles to survive. This income isn’t reflected in official salary figures.

So, what’s the real picture?

  • Difficult to Determine: Due to the informal nature of a large portion of the economy, calculating a true average income that reflects reality is difficult.

Here’s what we can say:

  • Official salaries are very low.
  • Most people rely on unofficial income sources.
  • The true average income is likely higher than the official salary but difficult to quantify.

In urban areas such as Pyongyang, the average monthly salary may be marginally higher than in rural regions, due to the concentration of industries and opportunities in the capital. However, even there, the average salary in North Korea is subject to fluctuating economic conditions, government policies, and international sanctions. The actual earnings of individuals can vary significantly, with workers in sectors deemed vital by the government, such as mining or military industries, sometimes earning more than those in less prioritized sectors.

It is essential to note that many North Koreans rely on a parallel informal market, known as the Jangmadang, to make ends meet. Transactions in these markets can be a significant source of income for families, although they operate outside the formal wage system. Consequently, while the average monthly salary received through official channels remains low, the overall household income might be supplemented through these additional economic activities.

Foreign enterprises operating in special economic zones offer somewhat higher salaries compared to domestic rates, though these opportunities are limited and typically only accessible to a small proportion of the population. This comparative advantage over local companies can sometimes offer a skewed perception of the average salary in North Korea for those employed in these special areas.

The scarcity of reliable data on wages in North Korea presents an ongoing challenge for analysts seeking to understand the country’s economy. Despite this, it is generally agreed that the average income level in North Korea is substantially below that of its neighbors and most other countries worldwide.

2. Factors that Influence Salaries

The salaries in North Korea are influenced by a variety of factors, some of which are characteristic of the country’s unique political and economic system. Understanding these key determinants is essential to gain insight into why the wages are at their current levels and how they might change:

  • State-Controlled Economy: As a centrally planned economy, the North Korean government has a direct influence on wage structures. Salaries are often determined by the state based on the industry, seniority, and importance of the role within the socialist framework rather than being driven by market forces.
  • Government Policies: Government policies have a significant impact on salaries. The regime can decide to raise or lower wages in different sectors to achieve its economic and ideological objectives. Raises in salary are often symbolic and do not necessarily keep pace with the cost of living.
  • Work Unit (Inminban) System: North Korea operates a work unit system that organizes citizens into groups, which are then assigned jobs. This categorization can affect individuals’ job opportunities and consequently their earning potential, as some units may have more lucrative assignments than others.
  • Economic Sanctions: International sanctions have put a strain on the North Korean economy, reducing the country’s ability to trade effectively. This limitation impacts the profitability of industries, constraining the salaries that employers can afford to pay.
  • Inflation and Currency Fluctuations: The value of the North Korean won is subject to fluctuations, and periods of high inflation can erode purchasing power, meaning that workers’ real wages may decline even if their nominal salaries remain constant.
  • Informal Economy: Many North Koreans supplement their official wages through participation in the informal economy. This can include small-scale trading, farming, and other entrepreneurial activities that are not officially sanctioned by the state.
  • Rural vs. Urban Divide: Salary levels differ between urban areas, where state industries and opportunities for informal work are more abundant, and rural areas, where residents are more dependent on agriculture and state-determined salaries.
  • Professional Skills and Education: Workers in roles that require higher education or specialized skills tend to earn more than unskilled laborers. However, disparities are still less pronounced than in market economies due to the overarching socialist wage structure.
  • Military Prioritization: Jobs related to the military or defense sector are often given priority in terms of funding and wages, as part of North Korea’s ‘military-first’ policy, reflecting the importance the regime places on the armed forces.
  • Foreign Investment and Special Economic Zones: Workers in special economic zones or foreign-funded projects can receive higher salaries compared to those employed domestically. However, these positions are limited and often subject to strict government oversight.

These factors combine to create a salary landscape in North Korea that is very different from those in market economies, where supply and demand typically determine wages. The salaries of North Korean workers are largely determined by the state’s economic and political strategies, which can fluctuate based on domestic needs and international pressures.

3. Minimal Wages (monthly and hourly)

In North Korea, the concept of minimum wage is not well-defined in the public domain due to the state-controlled nature of the economy. The authorities do not publish official figures for a minimum wage that is comparable to international standards. However, it is recognized that the North Korean government sets wage levels for various sectors and occupations.

Some reports suggest that workers in state-owned enterprises and collective farms might receive nominal monthly wages, often supplemented by in-kind payments such as food rations or housing subsidies. These monetary wages are typically very low and heavily subsidised by the state’s provision of essential services and goods at minimal prices. Moreover, the presence of an extensive informal economy allows individuals to generate additional income beyond officially recorded wages.

Due to the lack of transparent data on the economy of North Korea, estimating an accurate monthly or hourly minimum wage figure is challenging for external observers. It is hypothesized that the average state-set salary could be equivalent to only a few dollars per month, given the country’s economic conditions and the purchasing power within the domestic market.

The informal markets offer a different perspective on earnings. Although these markets operate outside of the formal wage system and legal framework, they can provide more significant financial returns for individuals engaged in private buying, selling, and trading activities. In these markets, income is determined by market forces rather than the government’s pay scales.

Ultimately, due to the closed-off nature of the North Korean economy and the government’s tight grip on economic information, the specifics of minimum wages for the general working population remain obscure. Furthermore, the practical relevancy of such figures is limited, considering that the state-operated rationing system and the unofficial market dynamics play substantial roles in the livelihoods of North Koreans.

4. Gender Wage Gap

The gender wage gap in North Korea, like many other aspects of the country’s economy, is not well documented due to the secretive nature of the regime and a lack of reliable statistics. Despite the socialist state’s official stance on gender equality, anecdotal evidence and defector testimonies suggest that disparities exist between men and women in terms of income and employment opportunities.

Traditionally, North Korean society has been patriarchal, with men often holding more prominent positions in government and industry. Women are typically expected to take on roles related to homemaking and child-rearing, even though they also participate in the workforce. These cultural norms can contribute to a gender wage gap, as women may have fewer opportunities to engage in higher-paying jobs or may face discrimination in the workplace.

In recent years, reports have indicated that North Korean women have become increasingly involved in the informal market economy, sometimes referred to as the Jangmadang. This shift has been partly driven by economic necessity as the formal economy under the state’s control has been unable to provide adequate livelihoods. While participation in these markets offers women a chance to earn independent income, the earnings are not formally recognized and thus do not contribute to any official wage statistics that might exist.

Additionally, women in North Korea are known to be responsible for securing food and household necessities, which often requires them to engage in side businesses or informal work. Although this economic activity may empower women financially to some degree, it is also a symptom of gender-based expectations that force women to find alternative means of supporting their families, especially during times of economic hardship.

It is difficult to quantify the gender wage gap in North Korea due to the lack of transparent data. However, the social structure and economic conditions suggest that a gap does exist. Women’s access to higher-paid roles and career advancement is likely limited by societal norms and political pressures, contributing to an environment where gender inequality in terms of earnings and labor rights can persist.

5. Highest Paying Occupations

Ascertaining the highest paying occupations in North Korea is challenging due to the country’s secretive nature and the absence of openly available economic data. However, through various accounts by defectors and external observations, a picture can be painted of which occupations are likely to be among the best compensated in North Korea:

  • Government and Party Officials: High-ranking officials within the Korean Workers’ Party, government ministries, and the military are thought to be among the highest earners. Their positions provide not only a relatively high salary but also access to privileges and goods that are not available to the general population.
  • Military Officers: Given the 'military-first’ policy of North Korea, it is reasonable to assume that officers within the Korean People’s Army receive higher remuneration than the average civilian worker. Their pay likely reflects their status and the importance placed on the military in North Korean society.
  • Diplomats and International Trade Officials: Those working in diplomacy or in roles related to international trade may have higher wages, enabling them to work and sometimes live abroad, or at least interact more frequently with foreign entities.
  • Specialized Medical Professionals: While the healthcare system is state-run and salaries for most medical professionals are low, doctors with specializations, particularly those serving the elite in Pyongyang, are believed to earn more than their peers in the countryside.
  • Scientists and Engineers: Professionals in science and technology, especially in fields considered important by the regime such as nuclear physics and missile technology, might command higher salaries due to the strategic significance of their work.
  • Workers in Foreign-Funded Projects: Individuals employed by foreign organizations or in special economic zones where foreign investment is present might be paid more than those working for domestically funded enterprises.
  • Elite Performers: Artists and performers who are part of state-sponsored troupes and whose role is to showcase North Korean culture and propaganda, especially those who perform internationally, may enjoy greater financial rewards.
  • Informal Economy Brokers: While not an official occupation, brokers and successful merchants within the Jangmadang can amass significant wealth relative to average citizens. They capitalize on the demand for goods and currency exchange, both domestically and across the Chinese border.

Despite these distinctions, it is important to recognize that the concept of a 'high paying occupation’ in North Korea is vastly different from that in market economies. Wages are generally low, and non-monetary benefits like access to food, housing, healthcare, and education often supplement official salaries. Moreover, corruption and one’s standing within the party often play roles in determining an individual’s earning potential and quality of life.

6. Annual Average Wage Growth

The annual average wage growth in North Korea is a subject shrouded in opacity due to the lack of official economic data released by the government. Nonetheless, some insights can be drawn from NGO reports, defector testimonies, and international observations about the North Korean labor market and economy.

Wage increases in North Korea, when they occur, are typically decided by the government and often reflect changes in state policy or shifts in the national economy rather than productivity or inflation measures as seen in market economies. Such increases are sporadic and are usually announced during major holidays or political events as a means of demonstrating the munificence of the leadership or to incentivize particular sectors:

  • State Proclamations: The North Korean government occasionally announces wage increases across various sectors, which are then disseminated through state-controlled media. These announcements often co-occur with significant national anniversaries or are tied to ideological campaigns.
  • Importance to the State: Certain sectors deemed crucial by the regime, such as mining, military industries, or agriculture during key harvesting periods, may experience directed wage boosts to encourage productivity and meet state objectives.
  • Economic Sanctions and Foreign Relations: The condition of North Korea’s international relationships and the status of sanctions can influence the country’s economic health and indirectly affect wage growth. Periods of reduced tension and sanctions relief may provide leeways for wage escalations, albeit minimally.
  • Informal Economy Influence: While not reflected in official wage statistics, earnings within the informal economy are thought to grow more dynamically in response to supply and demand. Participants can experience increases in their income based on their success in trading and entrepreneurial ventures.

It is important to bear in mind that any reported wage growth figures should be taken with caution given the North Korean state’s control over economic information. Moreover, potential increases in nominal wages do not necessarily translate into improved living standards due to inflation, price fluctuations, and other economic pressures that can negatively affect the purchasing power of the won, North Korea’s currency.

In conclusion, while there might be nominal wage growth reported or observed sporadically in North Korea, the real effect on the livelihoods of the populace is hard to determine due to the tightly controlled and opaque nature of the economy. The concept of wage growth, as understood in market economies, has limited applicability in the context of North Korea’s state-run system.

7. Compensation Costs (per hours worked)

Understanding compensation costs in North Korea, particularly on a per-hour basis, is exceedingly difficult due to the country’s closed economy and the government’s tight control over employment data. However, some insights can be gleaned from the way the North Korean labor system is structured:

  • State-Determined Wages: Under North Korea’s socialist system, wages are typically set by the state for various occupations and sectors. Consequently, labor costs, including compensation per hour of work, are centrally dictated rather than shaped by labor market dynamics.
  • Work Hours: Information on working hours is scarce, but it is believed that North Korean workers are subjected to long hours across many sectors, with the state mandating work schedules. The concept of overtime pay, as understood in market economies, may not apply or be consistently practiced, if at all recognized by North Korean labor laws.
  • Non-Monetary Compensation: A significant portion of workers’ compensation may come in the form of non-monetary benefits such as housing, healthcare, and food rations provided by the state. This complicates the calculation of hourly wage costs as these compensations do not translate directly into cash payments.
  • In-Kind Payments: In some industries, particularly agriculture, workers might receive a portion of their compensation in-kind, such as a share of the produce, which further obscures the computation of an hourly rate in monetary terms.
  • Supplementary Labor: North Koreans are often required to participate in 'voluntary’ community work called „dolgyeokdae,” which includes infrastructure projects and agricultural support. These hours are typically unpaid and considered a part of civic duty, and therefore, they are not factored into compensation costs.
  • Foreign Enterprise Zones: Workers employed by foreign companies in special economic zones or by foreign-funded projects may have different compensation structures, potentially more closely aligning with international labor standards. However, details on these arrangements are limited and heavily monitored by the government.
  • Ration System Fluctuations: State-provided rations and subsidies have historically been a cornerstone of the North Korean compensation system, but their reliability fluctuates based on the economic situation. Declines in state provisions imply a hidden reduction in overall compensation for workers, even if their official hourly wage remains unchanged.
  • Informal Economy Earnings: The informal market plays a crucial role in compensating for the inadequacies of the formal economy. Here, individuals can earn income based on the market value of goods and services, which can exceed the hourly wage equivalent in the official sector. However, these activities are not legally sanctioned and are not included in official labor cost analysis.

In light of the factors mentioned above, any estimates of average compensation costs per hour for North Korean workers would be speculative and limited by the scarcity and unreliability of information. It is clear, though, that the structure and level of compensation in North Korea differ markedly from those in countries with market-based economies where hourly wages are a standard metric for labor costs.

8. Comparison with Other Countries

Comparing North Korea’s average salary with other countries is challenging due to the scarcity of reliable data and the unique nature of North Korea’s economy. Nevertheless, we can look at reports and analyses by various international organizations and defector testimonies to piece together a general comparison.

When compared to other countries, particularly in East Asia, North Korea’s average wages are significantly lower. For example, South Korea, which shares the same peninsula, has an average salary that is many times higher than that of the North. The contrast is indicative of the vast economic divide between the two Koreas, fueled by differing political systems and levels of economic development.

Countries such as China and Russia, which have historically been economic partners of North Korea, also have higher average salaries. Despite sharing borders and some trade relations, the wage gap remains substantial due to more open and diversified economies in China and Russia.

In comparison with Southeast Asian countries, North Korean wages may be closer to those in countries like Cambodia or Myanmar; however, even in these cases, North Korea’s average is generally lower due to the respective country’s integration with the global economy and foreign investment levels, which North Korea lacks.

The following table provides a simplified illustration of how average monthly salaries in North Korea compare with those in selected countries. Please note that these figures are estimates and subject to change due to currency fluctuations and shifts in economic conditions:

Country Estimated Average Monthly Salary (USD)
North Korea ~$30-40
South Korea ~$3,100
China ~$1,000
Russia ~$700
Cambodia ~$150
Myanmar ~$95

This table should be understood with caution, as the figures for North Korea are particularly difficult to confirm and could vary greatly depending on the source and methodology used for estimation.

It’s important to highlight that factors such as cost of living, purchasing power parity, and non-monetary forms of compensation play crucial roles in determining the actual standard of living in each country, which is not solely defined by monthly salary figures.

Furthermore, because North Korea has a largely state-controlled economy with heavy restrictions on foreign trade and investment, direct salary comparisons do not capture the full picture of economic well-being or hardship that its citizens may experience.

International sanctions, government policies, and the prevalence of the informal economy in North Korea complicate any direct comparison with other countries, where market-driven forces and private sectors play dominant roles in shaping salary levels and overall economic health.