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Divorce in N. Korea

# Inside North Korea l 2020-12-10

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more and more people to stay home longer and also caused financial issues at home. 


As a result, conflict between husband and wife has triggered more divorce cases in China, the U.S. and the U.K.  According to sources familiar with North Korea-related issues, something similar is happening in the communist regime. The report may not be entirely accurate, but it certainly merits attention because it shows a change in the reclusive North Korean society. 


Today, we’re going to learn about divorce in North Korea. First, lawyer Oh Hyun-jong explains the rising divorce rates in the country in the aftermath of the pandemic. 


It is said that North Korea has seen more divorces and family breakups this year. Many wives in the North support their families by engaging in market activities. Unfortunately, the prolonged pandemic has nearly paralyzed the private market of jangmadang, and many homes have suffered from a serious financial pinch. This has caused family troubles and prompted many married couples to go their separate ways. Many of those who planned on tying the knot are delaying or cancelling their marriage. Meanwhile, a growing number of young couples, who live together without being legally married, postpone having children or registering their marriage. 


North Korean authorities seldom approve divorce, so those who want to don’t officially report the dissolution of their marriage, but choose to simply live apart. 


In South Korea, couples who want to divorce fill out a divorce paper and a judge finally signs it. This is divorce by mutual consent. If a couple fails to agree on divorce, the spouse seeking to get the divorce files a petition with a local court. In North Korea, on the other hand, couples are only allowed to seek trial-based divorce. 


North Korea’s divorce system is stipulated by law. The code of family law consists of six chapters and 54 articles. According to Article 20 of family law, the husband and wife can divorce through only a court judgment. Therefore, if married couples want to do so, they are required to go to trial. This regulation has remained in place since 1956, when Cabinet Decision No. 24 abolished the practice of divorce by mutual consent, and had courts decide whether a divorce is acceptable. Divorce by mutual consent isn’t recognized in the North, as opposed to South Korea.


Families in North Korea exist for the purpose of the interests of the party and the state. Couples hold wedding ceremonies, not with the blessings of their family members or friends, but under the watchful eye of local party officials. A divorce, too, is not a simple family issue. Both the party and the state constrain and meddle in it. 


In other words, North Korea only recognizes strict judicial divorce. Once a court decides on a divorce, the couples can then determine, by agreement, matters about custody of the children and division of family property. 


Divorced couples are supposed to settle matters concerning childcare in consideration of the interests of their children. If they do not reach an agreement on this issue, the court determines that. Notably, children under three years old should be fostered by their mother, unless there are special reasons. So, young kids are mostly taken care of by their mother after their parents’ divorce. A spouse who does not bring up children has to make payments to the other party for the upkeep of their children until the kids reach working age. The court decides on child support expenses, in consideration of the number of children, within the range of 10 to 30 percent of the monthly income. 


After their divorce, the husband and wife may divide family property. If there is no agreement on that, the determination is made by the court. But few people own private property in North Korea, so disputes over property division are rare. 


In North Korea, the people’s court in each region handles the divorce proceedings. But before going to the divorce trial, couples may discuss their problems with members of “inminban,” or “people’s unit” in English, which is a small, neighborhood watch-like unit. The unit members give advice to the couple to dissuade them from divorcing. Lawyer Oh now explains some reasons for divorce in North Korea. 


A survey shows that “no children” accounted for 9 percent of divorce reasons in North Korea, domestic violence at 10 percent, infidelity at 19 percent, different beliefs and values at 21 percent and the disclosure of improper family backgrounds at 29 percent. Surprisingly, different beliefs and family backgrounds make up nearly half of the causes of divorce. This shows a stark contrast to South Korea, where problems in the relationship are the main reason for divorce. In fact, adultery is rarely accepted as the reason for divorce in North Korea. Even if a wife witnesses her husband having an affair with another woman, she just tolerates it. That’s the case with many wives. 


The divorce rate is actually quite low in North Korea because it’s not really easy to get a divorce. Most people cannot afford to pay the high costs of divorce proceedings, and acceptable reasons for divorce are strictly limited. Moreover, divorce is considered disgraceful. Therefore, it is difficult to find the actual cases of divorce in North Korea. 


During North Korea’s extreme economic difficulty in the mid-1990s, known as the Arduous March period, a lot of wives filed for divorce against their husbands who failed to bring food home, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of divorces. Probably for that reason, legal costs for divorce action rose drastically after the nation’s economic reform measures in July 2002, making the divorce process itself more difficult. The processing fee for divorce is as high as 80 percent of the average monthly salary of workers, so residents find it really difficult to divorce, realistically speaking. Also, those who seek a divorce for a second time should file a petition with a higher court. 


In most cases, alimony is not recognized for divorced women. According to Article 86 of the civil procedure law, pregnant wives and mothers with a child younger than one-year-old cannot be subject to a divorce petition. These regulations make it even harder for couples to go through with a divorce.


It is not easy to divorce in North Korea. Moreover, there is still negative perception about divorced women in North Korean society. Therefore, women are in a much more disadvantageous position than men as far as divorce is concerned. 


For that reason, women are typically dominated by men in marital relations, and many women have to accept patriarchal family culture to avoid getting divorced against their will. 

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