MARRIAGE IN NORTH KOREA
Age at first marriage: 29 for men and 25.5 for women (compared to 33.4 for men and 31.2 for women in Finland and 22.1 for men and 17.9 for women on Nepal) [Source: Wikipedia and Wikipedia ]
Legal Age for marriage: 17 for men and 18 for women. [Source: United Nations Data data.un.org]
The legal age for males to marry is eighteen years; for females, seventeen years. Marrying in one's late twenties or early thirties is common because of work and military service obligations; late marriage also affects fertility rates. Most marriages seem to be between people in the same rural cooperative or urban enterprise. Traditional arranged marriages have by and large disappeared, in favor of "love matches"; nevertheless, children still seem to seek their parents' permission before getting married. The taking of secondary wives, a common practice in traditional times, is prohibited. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Men in North Korea are generally encouraged to put in ten years of military service before they get married. Women are discouraged from marrying before they are 25. Ideally they would like to marry a man who has graduated from university, has finished his military service and is a member of Workers' Party of Korea. Women who have 10 children are honored as "maternal heros." Young North Korean women sometimes flirt with foreign travelers.
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Individual registration has had a significant effect on the North Korean marriage system. In Korean tradition, marriage between a man and a woman who share the same family origin is not allowed. Since all Koreans were required to keep family records since the time of the Yi dynasty, everyone can trace their family origin. If two people share the same ancestral name, they were regarded as brother and sister, and hence subject to the incest taboo. Since North Korea abolished the family registry, marriages between individuals from the same ancestral clan—as long as they are not direct relatives—are lawful. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Dating in North Korea
Ji-Min Kang wrote in NK News: “When it comes to relationships, Pyongyang tries to instil "love for revolutionary comrades" over romance, but people reject it. When I lived in Pyongyang we couldn’t travel around the country and didn’t have any freedom of speech. But although the government succeeded in getting rid of these basic human rights, it couldn’t prevent its people from falling in love. North Korea was going through a lot of dramatic changes during my 20s. Due to economic difficulties following the famine, the national borders had started to become more porous and western culture was starting to make its way in. In this environment, young people no longer stuck to the ultra-conservative norms of the past when it came to dating, although this was something the government wasn’t very happy about. [Source: Ji-Min Kang, NK News, the Guardian North Korea network, April 22, 2014]
“While the North Korean government wanted people to see their lovers as “fellow revolutionary comrades”, the truth was that this feeling never truly existed for many of us. We pretended to have that quality only because we were forced to. In this way, North Korea’s traditional and conservative attitude towards love and sex has long been based on completely different foundations to the conservative dating culture you might see in strongly Christian communities. And because they were values we couldn’t define or understand, we accepted them only because we were forced to.
Luke O'Neil wrote for Playboy: “With its defined patriarchal structure and conservative mores, North Korea is similar to many other East Asian cultures. “Dating in North Korea is a conservative affair. A typical date for a young couple might be a stroll along the river. Rollerblading and other sports are popular as well. Public displays of affection, such as holding hands or kissing, are rare—except among the bolder, relatively liberal urban youth. The policing of sexual behavior occurs across cultures, yet people always find a way to subvert it. [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]
“Dating, socializing—these things are different around the world. Vietnam is different from the U.S., and North Korea is different,” Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit organization that helps North Korean defectors, told Playboy.com. “It’s not like there’s something about North Korea that makes it crazy in its own category for dating and general socializing. Mainly, it’s a lot more conservative and more traditional. But things are changing, for a lot of the same reasons that there are all these other social changes.”
“The lack of social media and dating apps means dating and keeping in touch have to be done the old-fashioned way. “The first date is walking in the park,” says Rowan Beard, a tour guide with Young Pioneer Tours who lives in the border city of Dandong, China and has traveled to North Korea more than a hundred times. “They won’t hold hands. Hand-holding is done mostly between older and married couples. Younger couples would be too shy for that, but they’ll find a park bench and just talk. On the third or fourth date they’ll go to a restaurant. I’ve rarely seen North Koreans kissing. When I bring travelers along and they kiss in public, my North Korean friends will come up and say, ‘Wow, you guys are so open. I would never do that!’”
“There’s a rural ideal to it,” Michael Malice, author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, says. “They’re also very chaste. It’s not like going to college and everyone is getting laid.” Interactions between young people are indeed still modest, Beard says. “It’s the Asian culture of doing everything you can to impress your parents. For most of my friends there who are in their late 30s, when they were dating, it was very conservative. They didn’t have sex until after marriage. That’s how it still is, mostly. But a lot of my friends who are bit younger than me are curious about sex. The ones who haven’t had sex yet ask lots of questions about it, like what it’s like with girls in China and other countries.”
“Complicating things is the fact that most North Korean men spend their 20s in the military. The standard age for marriage is around 30 for men and 25 for women; women rarely partner with younger men. When it comes time to get married, parents—grandparents in particular—still play a big role. And unlike in the West, where class is measured largely by wealth, there is a system called songbun, which is a sort of credit score for loyalty and usefulness to the party. A higher score provides access to more food or better jobs. Naturally, parents want their children to be matched to someone with a higher status.
High-School-Age Dating North Korea
Ji-Min Kang wrote in NK News: ““I still fondly remember my teenage years, which I honestly don’t want to ever forget. Although I’ve become highly individualistic since then, I was once so innocent that I was willing to sacrifice everything and devote myself fully to my first love. She was a girl who went to the same high school who was a little younger than me. Her parents were good, close friends with mine. She was also friends with my younger sister. But, despite our good relationship, she ended up joining the military and I was left behind. [Source: Ji-Min Kang, NK News, the Guardian North Korea network, April 22, 2014]
“I met my second girlfriend through a mutual friend and, to my surprise, she asked me out. Looking back on those days I have absolutely no regrets and I loved my second girlfriend dearly. In my high school days when I was highly sentimental, my fellow students and I would go on dates in the park only when it was completely pitch black outside. High school students weren’t allowed to freely date in the open. In this kind of environment, we had no choice but to see each other hidden behind the trees or in basements of apartment blocks late at night – or among others at group events like birthday parties.
“But when you graduate from high school, there is less reason to be secretive. At this age, couples go on to spend a lot more time together without having to care about about what other people might think. Dates at theatres, parks and even on the benches at the square right in front of Kim Il-sung were all possible!
“When I lived in Pyongyang, the best place to meet girls was at the social club. In North Korea, social clubs were hosted for the masses, and for the young generation on holidays. Big club meetings and dance parties took place at numerous places, including Kim Il-sung square. Guys dressed up to go to the dance parties and they would always be thrilled and excited about the events. And it was here, as you can probably guess, that many young men and women would meet.
“When a guy would see a girl he liked, he’d ask her to dance with him. And if all went well he wouldn’t forget to ask for her phone number or workplace. If she liked the guy and if she was single, she would give him her phone number. However, for many men one serious problem relates to North Korea’s extremely long period of military service. Most men are unable to date for 10 years following graduation from high school because of this lengthy period of military service. During this period they hardly have any chance to meet women. So, after military service a culture of introductions emerges for many men in their late 20s.
“Sometimes, relatives set these guys up with other people they know. And when North Koreans meet someone on blind date, they have to take it seriously. So after military service, many men end up marrying the women their parents set them up with. This can mean that many North Korean husbands tend to be abrupt and not attentive at all.”
Wedding in North Korea
Wedding ceremonies are much simpler and less costly than in traditional times. However, they still contain such practices as meetings between families of the bride and groom, gift exchanges, formal letters of proposal, and wedding feasts. Among farming families, weddings usually take place after the fall harvest and before the spring plowing; this is when families have the most resources to invest and the bride can bring her yearly income from work points to her new household.
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Normally, newlyweds conduct a small ceremony, inviting close friends, neighbors, and family members, take a photo if they can afford it, and register their marriage. There is no feast or party and no honeymoon. Even wedding dresses are made from state-rationed fabrics, and therefore brides of a certain period all look more or less alike. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “There are no Juche clergy to preside over weddings or funerals. When a couple marries, they both swear their loyalty to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. After the brief wedding ceremony the newly-weds are expected to visit a nearby statue of Kim Il Sung, place some flowers in front of it, and then have their picture taken with the statue in the background. At a funeral it is common for mourners to cry out, "Though this body is deceased, the spirit of the revolution still lives." [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
At a North Korean wedding party people have traditionally eaten cold noodles. If you would want to join in North Korean friend’s wedding party you ask “ when can I eat your cold noodles?” A North Korean wedding without cold noodles is regarded as incomplete. Guests normally give gifts or money. Money is given in white envelopes which is different from the Chinese, who give money in the red envelopes, which is regarded as lucky. [Source: Explore North Korea tour group]
The family of the bride is expected to provide furniture for the newlywed couple. The groom is expected to give the provide a gold ring and gold necklace for the bride and the company or factory he works for supplies the house or apartment for the new couple. The new wife is expected to do all the housework.
Married Life and Divorce in North Korea
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “A primary consideration in marriage is the compatibility of class origins. If a man comes from the family of a high-ranking party member, and a woman from a family that does not have a comparable sociopolitical status, a marriage between the two would not be approved of by the society. If a man comes from a family that was originally repatriated from Japan in the postwar period and a woman comes from a family that is "native" North Korean, a marriage between the two is considered difficult since, generally speaking, repatriates are regarded with suspicion and distrust due to their ongoing connection with families in Japan. Hence, classes tend to marry within themselves just as in capitalist societies. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Upon marriage, a couple is given a house or, if they live in an urban area, an apartment. Ordinary couples, however, often have to wait until their application for a residence is approved by the authorities. The case of a couple from high-ranking families will be different: they will receive preferential treatment when seeking housing.
“A Korean-American scholar learned in discussions with North Korean officials in the early 1980s that a wife's inability to bear a son still gives a husband grounds for divorce. If a man desires a divorce, he has to obtain his wife's permission. A woman, however, is able to divorce without her husband's consent. A South Korean source reported the opposite — that it is easier for a husband to obtain a divorce than it is for a wife. Divorce from those branded "reactionaries," or "bad elements," is granted rather easily in the case of either gender and in fact often is strongly encouraged by the authorities. In general, the authorities seem to discourage divorce with the exceptions noted above. Eberstadt and Banister, using statistics provided by the Central Statistics Bureau, indicate that the number of divorces granted annually between 1949 and 1987 ranged between 3,000 and 5,000 (a low of 3,021 in 1965 and a high of 4,763 in 1949).
Family in North Korea
In spite of claims that it is an egalitarian society, North Korea is very male dominated. Women are equals when it comes to manual labor but there are few women in positions of authority except for relatives of Kim Jong-un. According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The domestic unit is a nuclear family with some degree of stem family practice, i.e. the family of one of the children (most likely a son) living with aged parents. Houses are small throughout the country and this restricts having large families as a norm. Adoption takes place through orphanages.”
Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of North Korean society, just as it was in Confucian times. North Korea also maintains the Confucian stress on such familial virtues as filial piety. Unlike Confucianism, however, Juche holds that loyalty to the paternalistic leader of the country takes precedence over filial obedience to a biological parent.
▪In another departure from the Confucian past, men are not allowed to have more than one wife. Divorce is frowned upon today almost as much as it was in the past (except for cases of divorce from someone who is politically tainted). Moreover, though the Juche constitution of 1972 says that "women hold equal social status and rights with men," North Korea remains a patriarchal society, with men occupying the vast majority of the most powerful posts in government. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Family Life in North Korea
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The family is regarded by North Korean authorities as a "cell," or basic unit of society, but not an economic entity. A person participates in production in a cooperative, factory, or office and individually earns "work points." Although on a socialist cooperative payment for work points earned by family members goes to the family unit as a whole, the family head — the father or the grandfather — no longer manages and organizes the family's economic life. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Both in urban areas and in socialist cooperatives, family size tends to be small — between four and five people and usually no more than two generations, as opposed to the three generations or more found in the traditional "big house." Parents often live with their youngest, rather than oldest, son and his wife. Observers discovered, however, that sons are still more desired than daughters for economic reasons and for continuing the family name. The eldest son's wedding is a lavish affair compared with those of his brothers. But the traditionally oppressive relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law common to East Asian countries seems to have been fundamentally transformed. A South Korean source reported that an overly demanding mother-in-law might be criticized by a local branch of women's organizations such as the Korean Democratic Women's Union.
“In households in which both parents work and no grandparents live nearby, infants over three months usually are placed in a t'agaso (nursery). They remain in these nurseries until they are four years old. Although t'agaso are not part of the compulsory education system, most families find them indispensable. In the early 1970s, North Korean statistics counted 8,600 t'agaso. The nurseries not only free women from child care but also provide infants and small children with the foundations of a thorough ideological and political education. A South Korean source reported that when meals are given to the infants, they are expected to give thanks to a portrait of "Father Kim Il Sung." [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Working Women and Modern Family Life in North Korea
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “North Korea doesn’t rank well on global measures of equality and human rights, but there’s one area in which it outperforms the west: the DPRK is one of the few countries in the world where women earn more than men on average. Although it is a male-dominated society, women bring in more than 70 percent of household income because of their dominance in the unofficial market economy. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]
“These days it is usually the father who takes care of the children while the mother works all the day in a market or the private sector. Apart from work and child-rearing, adults have to attend to regular ideological sessions in their local organisations. However under Kim Jong-un, these sessions are less regular and less vigorous than in the Kim Il-sung age.
“But life is not only about work and politics. People do rest, spending their free time with their friends and relatives.North Koreans like cinema, especially Soviet films, although films made in the DPRK have a reputation for being dull. Just like everywhere else in the world, North Koreans like visiting each other, dancing – often in the open air – and strolling. Few people walk at night as the country is chronically short of electricity and the streets are completely dark once the sun goes down. Young people sometimes take advantage of this for courtship.
North Koreans Can Inherit Property from South Koreans
In 2013, Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times: “The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled for the first time that North Korean children of a South Korean citizen have the right to inherit their deceased parent’s property, court officials said. The verdict set a legal precedent with far-reaching implications on the divided Korean Peninsula, as it opened the way for what could be a flood of similar lawsuits. Millions of Koreans were separated from their families across the border after the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II in 1945, and the border was sealed with the 1950-53 Korean War. [Source: Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, August 1, 2013]
“Many of those living in the South died without meeting their children, spouses or siblings in the North again or finding a way to bequeath their fortunes to those living in the impoverished North. There is no telephone, e-mail or letter exchange allowed between the two Koreas. The decision this week involved a man identified only by his surname, Yoon. A native of North Korea, Mr. Yoon fled to South Korea during the war, traveling only with his eldest daughter and leaving his wife and five other children behind in the North. The wife died in the North in 1997.
“When the war ended in a stalemate and with the peninsula still divided and no hope for him to reunite with his family, Mr. Yoon remarried in the South and had four children here. South Korea does not permit bigamy, but while it banned its citizens from contacting North Koreans during the cold war, it provided legal protection for a second marriage in the South.
“A doctor by training, Mr. Yoon left 10 billion won, or US$8.9 million, worth of property when he died in 1987. As his South Korean children moved to inherit the properties, his North Korea-born daughter, now 78, filed a lawsuit in 2009, claiming that they should share the fortune with Mr. Yoon’s children in the North.
“She went to extraordinary lengths to win her case. She found a Korean-American who was willing to travel to the isolated North to find, with the help of the North Korean government, her siblings in the North and collect DNA evidence, including hair and fingernail samples, and she also received videotaped statements from them allowing her to represent them in a South Korean court of law.
“In a 2011 lower-court ruling, which was formally upheld by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the North Koreans were recognized as biological children of Mr. Yoon. The court also recognized the North Koreans’ right to hire a South Korean lawyer and file a lawsuit in the South, as well as their rights to a portion of the inheritance from their father.
“Despite the ruling, the North Korean children are unlikely to get their money anytime soon. In anticipation of the cases like Mr. Yoon’s, South Korea enacted a law last year stipulating that any inheritance money won by North Koreans be kept in the care of a court-appointed custodian and sent to the North only with government permission. With tensions high with the North after its Feb. 12 nuclear test, South Korea keeps tight restrictions on cash transmissions to the North.
“But legal experts say that if the North Koreans file another lawsuit claiming that this law violates their rights under the Constitution of South Korea, it can open a whole new legal battle over the ban on cash transmissions. The South Korean Constitution includes North Korea in the South Korean territory, essentially giving all North Koreans citizenship in South Korea. “The court order raises more questions than it answers,” the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial after the original 2011 ruling. “This could trigger chaos and an explosive increase in lawsuits.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021