Life in North Korea is almost unimaginable for a person in the West.
The Hermit Nation is so closed-off that some people there still aren’t aware that humans have been to the Moon. Because the DPRK is so secretive, it’s hard to separate myths from facts when it comes to its citizens’ daily lives.
In the past, we’ve looked at how the average North Korean person compares to people in both South Korea and the US, but what about dating?
If you’re single and ready to mingle in North Korea, how do you go about finding a hot date?
North Korea is a country that is, in many ways, stuck in the past, and romance is no exception. Officially, the country’s stance on love is highly conservative and utilitarian. Public displays of affection, however small, are largely frowned upon, and citizens are encouraged to reject decadent capitalist notions of romance in favor of treating your partner
the same way that you treat all your fellow revolutionary comrades.
But, as one anonymous defector explained in a Guardian article titled ‘Dating: North Korean Style’- “although the government succeeded in getting rid of these basic human rights, it couldn’t prevent its people from falling in love.”
Over time, the state’s attitude towards romance has softened, and most younger citizens no longer hold such restrictive ideas on courtship.
In fact, North Korea has even started allowing romantic comedies.
In 2012, the British-Belgian-North Korean co-production Comrade Kim Goes Flying – the story of a coal miner joining the circus and falling in love with one of her fellow acrobats was a smash-hit when it premiered in Pyongyang.
However, this isn’t to say that finding love in the DPRK is as easy as it is in the state-approved movies. It’s still a largely impoverished nation ruled over by an oppressive communist regime that restricts and controls almost every aspect of human life. For example, if you’re a North Korean teenager and you want to take your crush out after school, you’d better be sneaky about it, because relationships are expressly forbidden for young people.
There is little or no sex education in schools and most teenagers in the country rely on information from parents, siblings, and friends to figure out the birds and the bees. Some aren’t even lucky enough to get that.
Dr. Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies and columnist for The Korea Times, explains in an interview for The Mirror, “Some North Korean females who became young adults in the 1970s and 1980s recall that, until their early 20s, they thought that holding hands with a male for too long could lead to pregnancy.” But, regardless of what country they live in, teenagers are teenagers and many of them get around the ‘no dating’ rules by scheduling dates in the park after nightfall, or in the basements of their apartment complexes, and in some cases hooking up at larger social
gatherings, like birthday parties, where friends can easily cover for them.
Once you’re out of school, restrictions on dating become less strict, but there’s another hurdle to jump over for any lonely North Koreans looking for love: Military service. True to form for a highly militarized communist nation, North Korea has mandatory conscription for all males, and selective conscription for females, between the ages of 15 and 30.
In 1993, the length of mandatory service was extended from eight years to ten, meaning that once you’ve been drafted, you’re in it for the long haul.
The anonymous defector writing in the Guardian article cites this as the reason his first relationship fell through- “despite our good relationship, she ended up joining the military and I was left behind.”
Even though both men and women serve in the military, celibacy is expected of all enlistees for at least the first 10 years of voluntary service.
Furthermore, the selective nature of female conscription means that only one in ten North Korean conscripts are female, so if you’re a male conscript seeking a special lady, your odds aren’t very good.
Men interested in men don’t have it much easier, though While homosexuality isn’t technically illegal in North Korea, it isn’t fully accepted, either, and being openly gay is considered to be frivolous and anti-communist. Affairs and relationships can and do still happen between soldiers of any gender combination, but given that both conscripts and voluntary enlistees are expected to train every day from 5 am to 10 pm, grow their own food to supplement their paltry rations, and only
take 2 weeks’ vacation in their entire military service, one can expect that the North Korean military isn’t the best place to start a workplace romance.
So, if you had to break up with your high school sweetheart after getting drafted, and you failed to make a connection with any of your fellow soldiers, how will you find someone once your 10 years of service have ended? In the free world, we might take to hook-up apps and dating sites like Tinder or Plenty of Fish, but – as you might have expected – North Koreans have to do things a little differently.
The majority of North Korea is still rural, and as we mentioned before, electricity still isn’t universally accessible, let alone cell phones with the 4G connection. The internet is available in North Korea, but only to a select group of government elites.
For everyone else, there’s North Korea’s state-sanctioned intranet, known as Kwangmyong, a word which translates to ‘bright star’ in English.
This primitive network, powered by bootleg Japanese software and run exclusively on North Korean-made computers is accessible only in offices, universities and internet cafes, mainly in Pyongyang.
If you go to one of these places and get onto Kwangmyong, what kinds of things can you expect to find? Well, not very much, as it turns out.
As reported by Vice’s Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, an accidental server leak revealed to the outside world that North Korea is home to only 28 websites. Most are propaganda news sites and official websites for government agencies and universities, but there’s also movie site korfilm.com.kp, a couple of Facebook clones, and Manbang: North Korea’s only video streaming service. But, unfortunately, none of the 28 registered .com.kp domains are dating websites, so if you’re looking for some Manbang and chill, you’ll have to go offline. Officially speaking, North Korea has no nightlife. Outside of national holiday celebrations, almost no state-sanctioned partying exists in the Hermit Kingdom.
However, North Koreans still find ways to have fun despite strict regulations. When posed the question of North Korean nightlife as part of NK News’ Ask a North Korean series, defector Je Son Lee described North Korea’s underground party scene. Lee said, “No matter whether you’re living in North Korea, South Korea or the United States, appreciation for arts, sports, affection, and friendship exist in every country people
live in”. Underground social clubs often pop up in abandoned houses that have been thoroughly soundproofed and fitted with oil-powered generators, usually borrowed from factories where the would-be
clubbers work during the day. Many clubs play contraband pop music from both South Korea and the United States. Others opt for a more lo-fi solution and host live singing and acoustic guitar performances, allowing party hosts to quickly change the setlist to state-sanctioned music without
suspicion if they suspect a police raid. On the more salacious side of things, while prostitution is still outlawed in the DPRK,
the rise of the new market economy since the 1990s has made it much easier for sex workers to make money than it was previously.
Dr. Lankov explains that, during the reign of Kim Il Sung, sex work was more or less non-existent. Due to rampant poverty and government corruption, it wasn’t unheard of for people to exchange sexual favors for food and supplies, or sleep with party officials in exchange for a promotion.
But sex work in the traditional sense, i.e. exchanging sex for money, wasn’t a practical option due to incredibly strict controls on housing, income, and leisure activities. Following Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, however, more international influences started getting across North Korea’s borders, which increased trade options for those working in the oldest profession.
So, we’ve covered how you might meet a potential partner in North Korea, but once you’ve won their heart, what comes next?
Well, if you’re a good communist revolutionary looking to do your duty to the nation and procreate, you’ll obviously want to get married.
In some ways, North Korean weddings are similar to most South Korean weddings: the bride and groom participate in a ceremony known as a kunbere, which involves exchanging vows before sipping wine from a gourd offered to them by the mother of the bride. Both bride and groom, and sometimes other members of the wedding party, wear traditional
hanbok dresses and the wedding venues will be decorated with bouquets of flowers. Friends and family attending the ceremony will bring gifts as well as small monetary donations that go towards the lucky couple’s honeymoon. After the ceremony, the groom’s parents will often toss chestnuts for the bride to catch with her skirt, and the number of chestnuts she catches is said to represent how many children she’ll have.
Most of the elements of a traditional Korean wedding are consistent across both sides of the 38th parallel, but in the North, there are a few notable deviations. First of all, instead of decorating the tables with flowers at the reception, it’s expected that the newlyweds will take them as offerings to the closest statue of Kim Il-Sung immediately after the ceremony.
This is where they’ll usually also pose for their wedding photos, which isn’t compulsory, but most couples end up doing it anyway out of social pressure And if you and your fellow revolutionary were planning on tying the knot on either 15 April or 16 February, you’re going to have to reconsider, because those are the birthdates of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively, and it’s forbidden to walk down the aisle on either
date. Furthermore, as most people in North Korea can’t afford the cost of preparing a wedding feast, it’s commonplace to rent food from local markets- yes, we said rent- just for the sake of a photo-op.
Once the pictures of the wedding party are taken, the food is returned to whatever vendor it was borrowed from. While you and your spouse may not get food that you’re actually allowed to eat, though, you will get some live chickens. Live chickens are never left out of North Korean weddings.
Instead of a flower girl and a ring bearer, a North Korean couple walking down the aisle will be accompanied by a hen carrying dates and flowers in its beak, and a rooster holding a red chili pepper.
As for that honeymoon fund we mentioned earlier, you’re out of luck once more, because a newly married couple in North Korea will still be expected to come into work the day after the ceremony.
NK News contributor Kim Yoo-sung says in an Ask A North Korean article that he had never even heard of honeymoons until after he defected in 2005. For party officials, the wedding day is a much more lavish affair.
As a way to demonstrate their wealth and importance, the ceremony will be held on a huge scale, with long lines of cars parked outside the venue.
The monetary gifts given by guests to the wedding will often be in US dollars, another way to show off the couple’s power and status.
After the special day, what is married life like for North Korean people?
Well, if you find out that you jumped in a little too soon with your fellow revolutionary, and it’s not really working out, you’re not alone.
Divorce rates in North Korea are steadily rising as more and more women are seeking economic independence outside of marriage.
Alternatively, if you’re a party official or elite businessman, you could always have an affair. In sharp contrast to the conservative attitudes held by the majority of North Koreans, high-ranking officials are extremely brazen with their infidelity, posing for photos with their mistresses,
and even bringing them on business trips and to public events.
In the west, we tend to think of people in North Korea as spending their entire lives in service of the government. Images of life in the DPRK are dominated by starving workers and brainwashed soldiers, so it’s easy to think there’s nothing more to the North Korean experience. But humans are social creatures, no matter how their governments try to control them,
and not even the so-called glorious leader can stop people from falling in love. They just have to be a little more creative about how they express it.
So, the next time you’re sitting at home and swiping left on your 5th tinder match in a row, spare a thought to all the lovesick people of North Korea.
They want it just as much as you.