Sex and Love...in North Korea
This updated version of Love & Sex in North Korea was originally written by LiNK for Koreaboo.
According to historians who are really good at remembering when things happened in the olden days, sex and love existed before the Internet was even invented. Before 56K dial-up, phones, and even Tinder, humans found ways to interact completely offline and engage in sexual activity. In fact, biologists believe that the human proclivity for sex is universal and plays a major role in producing baby humans, thereby maintaining the human race’s existence. (Go humans!)
So could it be that in North Korea too, people have sex and fall in love and do romantic things with each other?
According to North Korean refugees that I’ve worked with, the answer is: Yes. North Koreans have sex too.
So, how do North Koreans do it?
First of all, the baseline to understand is that overall North Korean dating culture is pretty traditional and conservative. Think South Korea, but 50 years ago. One of the reasons for this is, well, North Korean society is quite conservative and patriarchal in general and North Korean media is super old-fashioned. In North Korean films you don’t see couples kissing or being physically affectionate with each other, so many North Koreans are just not used to PDA and wouldn’t dream of being too affectionate or kissing in public.
Nonetheless North Koreans do meet and date and fall in love like everywhere else. A lot of it starts in school (awww) and people also meet at dances or house parties. That’s right, when the parents are out of town young urban North Koreans will often invite a bunch of friends over and have a party. Once ‘the eyes have met’ the boy often has to do a lot of the pursuing. And guys, spare a thought for our brothers there: Only about 10% of North Koreans have a mobile phone. So for most, it has to be done the old fashioned way.
Either you have to pre-arrange to meet ‘10 trees away from the school gate at 7pm on Wednesday’ or you have to take the risk of going to their house. The danger, of course, is that you knock on the door and their mother answers, causing all that (traditional Asian) embarrassment. So a common trick is to knock and wait for someone to call out “Who is it?” If it’s the mother you say “I’ve come for Eun-kyung” (even though your girlfriend’s name is something else) and pretend you got the wrong house. If your girlfriend answers, then you can say, “It’s me! Come out!” Nicely done.
Finding a place to date isn’t so hard; people hang out in the park, or by the river, or around the market. But it’s when you need a bit more privacy that things get more difficult. The vast majority of young North Koreans live in their parents house until they get married (even more so than South Koreans) so there is no privacy at home. So when the relationship heats up, young couples will often go to the North Korean equivalent of a love motel, which is basically paying a middle-aged women to clear out of their own house for a few hours so the couple can get it on. A more risky space for a frisson might be a storage room with an unlocked door, or even a train toilet.
However, there’s a problem here...well, a few in fact. Sex education is almost non-existent in North Korea. And contraceptive pills and condoms can be hard to come by, too (you can’t just stop by the closest 24-hour convenience store). I have a friend who used to smuggle goods from China to sell in North Korea, and she says she saw a pregnancy test for the first time in 2007. She of course promptly smuggled some in to sell to North Korean women. This combination of factors unfortunately leads to a lot of unplanned pregnancies and risky abortions amongst unmarried women.
Like other aspects of North Korean culture, dating culture is not static. And as with other social changes, one of the major drivers is the influx of foreign media being smuggled in on DVDs and USB drives, and now even Micro-SD cards. In fact, one of the reasons South Korean dramas and films are so popular is because, in contrast to North Korean government-produced films, they show compelling human stories of love and relationships, and have addictive plotlines. If all you had access to was government propaganda your whole life and then suddenly you heard that your friends had access to this amazing new foreign stuff, you might risk watching it too.
In the first few viewings, these simple South Korean soaps can be revelatory: The PDA, the attitudes of the female characters, even the way they talk and dress. The love story in the Korean drama Winter Sonata, which is credited with starting the Korean Wave across Asia, is still remembered fondly by many North Korean refugees.
Similarly when My Sassy Girl was smuggled in many young women who watched it were driven to imitate not just Jeon Ji-hyun’s fashion and hairstyle, but also the confident and cool way in which her character treats her boyfriend. (And of course in the background of these films and dramas, North Korean viewers can’t help but notice that South Korea looks way richer than North Korea). These information changes are confounding economic changes in their effects on gender relations, as bottom-up marketization has raised the status of women as they play a key role in illegal and semi-legal entrepreneurial business activities.
Humans being humans, porn is also being smuggled into North Korea. And without getting too PG-13, it would be fair to assume that this also opens up and accelerates changes in behaviour between the sheets as well.
It’s worth noting that despite a big growth in flows of foreign media over the last 10 years it is still limited, and especially in the countryside and in the interior of the country away from the border with China, people have much less access (if at all). So there is huge regional variation in North Korea and dating culture will still be very traditional and conservative in the countryside, whilst changing rather quickly in Pyongyang and other major cities and border towns. In addition, young Pyongyangites also mostly have mobile phones now, meaning fewer nervous knocks on doors.
Because of the government’s ongoing restrictions on culture and extreme paranoia over foreign media, North Korea was late to the sexual revolution. But it is now happening, and it is no trivial matter. The emulation of dating culture learned through South Korean and other foreign media, particularly among young urban North Koreans, is contributing to increased sensitivity to foreign trends and a liberalization and modernization of culture and society from the bottom up. And in the long run, it’s this kind of social change that will help usher in a wider transformation and opening of North Korean society, to the benefit of the North Korean people and humanity as a whole.
--SOKEEL PARK - director of research and strategy
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.