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Dating Culture in N. Korea

# Inside North Korea l 2021-01-21

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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The year 2021 has begun, but many people in South Korea refrain from New Year celebrations and get-togethers, for fear of the further spread of COVID-19. They will probably find it difficult to meet their family members or relatives during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. The same is true of young couples. They certainly want to see each other but many of them simply send text messages. 


What about couples in North Korea? Many South Koreans mistakenly believe that people in the North are very conservative about dating and mostly have their partner or future spouse arranged by their parents or matchmakers. Today, we’ll learn about dating culture in North Korea from Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector and reporter at the online newspaper, Daily NK.  


I attended college in North Korea in the mid-1980s. At the time, dating was strictly banned on college campuses. If students were caught having a date, they were severely criticized because dating was believed to have a bad effect on other students. It comes as no surprise that people had a negative perception about dating and that very few people married for love. Until the 1980s, it was a common belief that a love marriage would end up in divorce because it was considered abnormal. Love and dating was controlled in North Korea during the years of former leader Kim Jong-il, as dating was regarded as a product of capitalism and an indecent element that damages socialism. 


Unlike in the past, however, North Koreans’ perception about dating has changed a lot in recent years. With citizens going on dates more freely than before, it is common to see couples walking arm in arm on the streets and showing public displays of affection. 

Dating and the display of physical affection have been considered pretty natural since leader Kim Jong-un appeared in public places arm in arm with his wife Ri Sol-ju. 

Moreover, the South Korean pop culture boom known as hallyu that has been sweeping the reclusive North Korean society has contributed to the change of perception about dating. 


I guess the scene of Kim Jong-un publicly walking arm in arm with his wife came as a great shock to local citizens. When women linked their arms with men in the past, men in most cases were so embarrassed that they would loosen their arms quickly. But after the scene of the leader and his wife arm in arm was made public, a new culture of displaying love spread fast in the North. It is said that people did not hesitate to show wild displays of romance such as kissing on the streets and on the subways in Pyongyang. Many young people including college students who are curious about foreign culture as well as those living in border areas have accessed various TV soaps and programs from South Korea and China. Partly for that reason, it is easy to find men and women holding each other’s hands on the streets at night these days. Photos of Pyongyang show that even middle-aged men and women walk on the streets, putting their arms around each other’s shoulders, in broad daylight. This is a significant change, indeed. 


So, where do young couples like to visit when dating? In the capital of Pyongyang, popular places couples like to hang out include public places such as the Grand People’s Study House and an art museum as well as Taedong River, Moranbong Park and the Mt. Taesong amusement park. But in local regions, it is difficult to find a place to bring a date. It is said that new businesses have emerged in local areas to provide space dedicated to couples. 


There are nice walkways and parks along rivers as well as places that command a fine view in large cities. In Pyongyang, couples may go to various places like the Moranbong Park, the Mangyongdae historic site, the Yongnam Mountain area, where the prestigious Kim Il-sung University is located, a water park, resort areas, movie theaters, you name it. 


But that’s not the case with local areas, where it is hard to find great places for dating, except parks or movie theaters. There are places called “waiting accommodation” in local regions. It refers to a house adjacent to train stations or bus stops. Couples rent the place for a moment to eat food they’ve brought and have a conversation to enjoy their own private time. Places like this are wonderful in cold winter, in particular. The rental fees are less expensive than normal lodging expenses. 


In South Korea, many couples split the cost when dating. In patriarchal North Korea, on the other hand, men mostly paid for dates in the past. But this tradition has also changed lately. Reporter Kang continues to explain.


For about 30 years from the 1990s to the 2010s, many North Korean women became financially independent. As a result, women have become more active when spending money on various occasions, probably including dating. 


Both men and women in North Korea have been able to earn money by working part-time on a daily basis over the last ten years. I imagine men who want to plan a great date may use the money they earned through part-time jobs. 


We can’t help but wonder what men and women in North Korea prefer in a dating partner. 


According to North Korean defectors, most North Korean men were attracted by women with an elegant image, while women put top priority on men’s family background and political ideology. These days, it is said that economic capability is considered important. 


Previously, it was important whether a person is a party member, what occupation he or she has and what family he or she came from. But qualities for a preferred partner have changed as well. With capitalistic elements permeating into North Korean society, one’s wealth has become a top priority since the mid- to late 2000s. People have become keenly interested in the financial stability of their potential partner, rather than something the state or the party wants. In the mid to late 2010s, some people going on a date made a veiled reference to their relatives in South Korea, implying that they can receive economic assistance. Matchmaking services in the North are said to have actually promoted people who have relatives in South Korea.


These days, many North Korean parents recommend their children to become a researcher or college professor. As a result, local residents increasingly prefer those with elite professions when finding their future spouse. Even in the socialist North, free and open dating culture is being detected. 


Many might be thinking that South and North Korea are different in everything. But it looks like young people in North Korea are no different from their South Korean counterparts in terms of love, romance and relationship. 

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