Understanding life in North Korea boils down to embracing two contradictory ideas: the situation for people in North Korea is more different than we can possibly imagine, and yet all people around the world are fundamentally the same. There is perhaps no greater example of this than North Korea’s dating culture.
People are fundamentally the same everywhere. Even in North Korea, life goes on. My trip to North Korea vividly displayed this basic fact of life. While visiting the Juche Tower, I observed a group of young North Korean female soldiers practicing for the Mass Games. In between their goose-stepping drills these women were doing something that amazed me – they were gossiping. These were not the Nazi robots that the international media normally portrays the North Korean military as being, but real people. Some were even giggling like schoolgirls. After all, they were schoolgirls (or I guess technically army-girls)!
After meeting with experts and other tourists to North Korea, I learned that my experience was not unique. I can report with confidence that North Koreans flirt, date, and fall in love just like everyone else. In fact, in many ways the rules regarding sex and dating are relatively lenient in North Korea. One refugee noted, “The culture of sex in North Korea is not conservative. A liberal sex culture is certainly not encouraged, but as far as sex is concerned, people make their own choices.”
Another refugee explained that many North Koreans begin dating in middle school. Students aged 14 or 15 are sent into the countryside to help farmers for 40 days in the spring and 15-20 days in the autumn. At night, students begin to experiment with drinking, smoking, and dating. “When we go onto farm supporting activity, it is easier for us to date the female students.” Although these activities are technically illicit, teachers generally ignore them. In fact, it is quite common for teachers to share alcohol with their students as a token of good will.
The loosening of North Korea’s information blockade has even spurred an influx of foreign pornography into North Korea, and the spread of DVDs carrying South Korean dramas into North Korean people’s homes is also changing expectations and attitudes towards relationships. For more about the flow of information into North Korea see our blog posts on Grassroots Glasnost.
On the other hand, this is still North Korea we are talking about, so we would expect some things to be different. It is rare for anyone to date or marry outside of one’s songbun (social class based on political loyalty). Because songbun is a label belonging to an entire family, if a cousin gets into trouble then one’s songbun may drop. This may ruin any current relationships, and hamper dating prospects in the future.
Furthermore, the lack of proper sex education makes sexual contact a risky proposition. Girls learn about sanitation and raising children but are left ignorant about sex. One refugee asserted that, “There are no contraceptives and they have not even heard of a condom.” Pregnancy is grounds for expulsion from school. Many opt for abortion. However, since the 1990’s abortion has become illegal. The cost of having a doctor to perform the procedure is exorbitant. As a result many resort to dangerous methods of pregnancy termination such as falling down heights or ingesting tuberculosis pills.
For boys too, dating can be a serious matter. As a refugee explained, “In middle school, in the age of 16, it is very important for students to have a girlfriend and also participate in the gang fight.” Those that failed to do both were ostracized.
Dating culture only really liberalized in the 1990’s. Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy, which is based mostly on refugees’ accounts of their lives in North Korea during the 1990’s, reported that “the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses. Couples are not supposed to make any public displays of affection—-even holding hands in public is considered risqué. North Korean defectors insist that there is no premarital sex and no such thing as an unmarried student getting pregnant.”
Photo by KEI
The relaxation of sexual norms has been driven by a number of possible factors.
One refugee has speculated that “high divorce rates, and the tendency for Party officials to have mistresses and extra-marital affairs meant that the Party was reticent about dictating to the people about their love lives.” Indeed, the party elite have never been shy about their sexual endeavors.
Kim Il-sung also perhaps inadvertently changed the sexual culture of his country when he remarked, “It is quite distressing that there is a barrier between North and South, why should we have a barrier between men and women?” This statement led to the integration of single sex schools and other sex segregated institutions, thus creating more opportunities for boys and girls to interact.
However, the liberalization of dating culture in North Korea was probably driven by the crises of the 1990’s. From the people’s perspective, the imperatives of day-to-day life trumped any social hang-ups regarding dating or sex. Holding hands in public just didn’t seem risqué anymore, considering that prostitutes were openly selling themselves on the street. Meanwhile, the regime viewed controlling the dating lives of the populace as a low priority. Dating and sex provided an outlet for the people. As restaurants and cinemas began to close, people had few things to do. The regime preferred they focus on courting the opposite gender rather than examining the causes of their crumbling society. Therefore, both the people and the regime relaxed their conservative stance on sex and dating.
Like in the South, North Korean sexual norms have evolved from that of a traditional Confucian society to something more modern. Love exists in North Korea. People flirt, date, and get married there just like anywhere else. On the other hand, sex and dating in North Korea can carry deadly consequences. Although this is only a small facet of North Korean society, I believe it demonstrates something fundamental. North Koreans are just regular people living under bizarre and challenging circumstances.
B. H. | Research & Strategy Intern