Neither extreme poverty nor wealth exists in North Korea, though in general the inhabitants live under conditions that do not match those of people in more modern countries, including their prosperous neighbors in South Korea. The government is committed to providing necessities to every person, but the ruling elite enjoys a more prosperous life than the general population. They are entitled to privileges such as quality housing, access to select shops with quality imported goods, and foreign travel.
Until the famine of 1995, North Korea's education, health-care, and nutrition systems were thought to operate efficiently. Education is free and compulsory to age 15, which may explain the 99 percent literacy rate. A kindergarten system is available to all children. Higher education is serviced by over 200 institutions, which specialize in science and technology. In 1998 college graduates made
|Exchange rates: North Korea|
|North Korean won (KPW) per US$1|
|Note: Latest data available.|
|SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].|
|GDP per Capita (US$)|
|Note: Data are estimates.|
|SOURCE: Handbook of the Nations , 17th,18th, 19th and 20theditions for 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 data; CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online] for 2000 data.|
up 13.7 percent of the adult population, compared to 9.2 percent in South Korea. Health care is free in North Korea. The health system provides a large number of hospitals and clinics staffed by skilled professionals.
The natural disasters of the late 1990s caused phenomenal human casualties, however. Although little information is available about survivors in the affected areas, the worsening economic situation and famine have lowered the living standard of the entire population. Attendance has fallen at all educational institutions, and there have been reports of severe shortages of medicines and equipment. Malnutrition among children has been increasing since 1995. A system of food rationing designed to provide an adequate diet collapsed in various parts of the country during the late 1990s. In 1998 about 16 percent of children were malnourished, and another 62 percent suffered from illnesses related to undernourishment.