Although banned on campus, dating culture flowers in North Korea

The long and frigid winter has finally begun to subside and
spring is on its way. As the new semester gets underway, memories and images of
campus couples spring to mind: holding hands as they stroll around campus, go
to the amusement park, and hang out in the library. Which begs the
question: what do campus couples in North Korea typically do on dates?

According to defectors, dating is officially banned on
college campuses, so you won’t see any couples flaunting their relationship out
in the open. Those who are caught putting on amorous displays are criticized or
even punished. Some are even expelled.

Such restrictions notwithstanding, it is, of course,
impossible to totally block off the human desire to pair off. That’s why campus
couples attempt to escape the tightly controlled campuses by going on dates
outside the school grounds, according to a number of defectors.

“Dating in school is officially forbidden, but naturally the
students are all going outside of campus to go on dates with one another. When
class is over, they walk home together. Another common site – male students
giving their girlfriends a ride on their bike or scooter,” said Kim Yeon Seok
(pseudonym), a defector who attended school in Jagang Province’s Huichon City.

“Popular date spots include restaurants that serve delicious
meat. The students spend time chatting with one another as they eat. Just as
couples in South Korea go on dates in department stores, North Korean couples
go to the jangmadang [markets, official or otherwise] to browse the products. If something strikes their
fancy, maybe they’ll buy it as a gift for their significant other,” he said,
adding that the couples also take pictures together on their cell phones, then
print out two copies to take home. 

In addition to these kinds of dates, the students will also
sometimes go to a nearby mountain trail, riverside, or beach to go on double

Because students have to attend a lot of work mobilizations
they aren’t afforded much time for rest and relaxation, but they make the most
out of holidays and small breaks to gather and hang out. It’s difficult and
expensive to go far away, so most of this down time is spent at a nearby
mountain or river. 

For Park Jun Yeong (pseudonym), a student who attended
school in Hamhung City, South Hamgyong Province, the beach was in close
proximity and therefore a popular spot for such occasions. “Sometimes we took
little lunch boxes and other times we’d take some fresh meat to grill. We
usually divided up the tasks and the necessary tools/ingredients or pool our
money to share the costs,” he said.

Outside of dating, there is another essential aspect of
dating: anniversaries. Although there are no particular holidays designated for
couples on the official North Korean calendar, all the defectors agreed that
when it comes to dating, it is absolutely essentially to remember birthdays.

Mr. Kim said, “Most people don’t pay special attention to
other days, but birthdays are a big deal. Watches are a popular gift. Women
sometimes get their boyfriends a belt or a lighter. Even if the boyfriend doesn’t
smoke, the lighter is meant to symbolize the burning love that they have for
one another. For this reason, lighters are a popular gift.”

Recent defector (2015) and Pyongyang native Lee Yeon Hwa
(pseudonym) added that foreign media influence is also reshaping dating culture
in the North, noting, “Because of the movies that are coming in through China and the
influence they’ve had on North Korea, men are starting to get flower bouquets
and makeup for their significant others. The upper class in Pyongyang give
cakes as a birthday gift as well.” 

Ms. Lee continued, “Unlike South Korea, couples don’t tend to
wear matching clothes or get matching rings. A ring usually symbolizes marriage
or a relationship heading in that direction, so that can be a bit burdensome.”

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