Indicated by the yellow circles, rings are increasingly commonplace in North Korea.
Image: Collage of photos from KCTV and Rodong Sinmun
Unification Media Group (UMG): Street vendors can be seen in North Korea selling all kinds of accessories, like necklaces and earrings. As the country’s dating culture develops, more North Korean couples are choosing to wear accessories like matching love tokens. Reporter Kang Mi Jin will explain more about this story today.
Kang Mi Jin (KMJ): Even during the winter season, it’s common to see South Korean couples lovingly hold hands without a care in the world as they brave the cold outside together. Seeing them buy matching accessories from jewelry shops reminds me of young couples in North Korea.
Going into 2010, it was reported that women’s fashion in North Korea took on a significant shift as interest grew in women’s jewelry. Additionally, many more North Korean couples have begun wearing matching couple tokens.
Today, I will explain the culture behind this sort of gift-giving with particular emphasis on the practice of exchanging couple rings in North Korea.
UMG: While I unfortunately do not have a boyfriend, a lot of my closest friends do. Most of them seem to have matching couple-wear. Are you saying that this is the case for North Koreans as well?
KMJ: Yes. Especially in recent years, one can commonly see North Korean women wearing couple rings on their hands. This sort of exchange among couples, both married and dating, can be seen as an affirmation of their love toward each other. When I was living in North Korea, it was uncommon for husbands to buy matching couple accessories for their wives on special occasions (such as their birthdays or International Women’s Day, known as 3.8 Women’s Day in North Korea). However, 2010 marked a change from this past as more people began to exchange couple rings as wedding gifts and married couples exchanged other matching accessories on birthdays and anniversaries.
One can find women everywhere in North Korea who will attest to the popularity of this practice. Matching couple-wear can be seen in photos taken by tourists visiting North Korea as well as the state’s media when broadcasting images of its citizens.
One North Korean woman I spoke with, who lives near the Chinese border, said that she wanted to buy a ring for her future daughter-in-law ahead of her son’s wedding. She said that a lot of North Koreans look for South Korean-made products, but there is an unfortunate lack of supply.
UMG: So are you saying that North Koreans also share the practice of exchanging wedding rings?
KMJ: It is customary to hold an engagement before the wedding, although this practice may differ slightly by region. On the day of the engagement, the groom’s family generally sends cosmetics and clothes to the bride as gifts; wedding rings are now frequently given as well, but this was not always the case. 90 days before my wedding day, some time ago, I was given a sewing kit, expensive cosmetics and scarves from my husband’s family. It was rare at the time to see the groom’s family prepare a wedding ring for the bride. However, from around 2010, as women gained more interest in fashion, the emphasis placed on accessories grew as well.
Some people attribute this change to Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who is known for her fashion tastes. She has had a big influence on North Korean fashion, from the shortening of skirts to more form-fitting clothing as well as the growing preference for necklaces, earrings and rings.
For South Koreans, Ri Sol Ju’s attire may seem a little old-fashioned. However, for North Koreans, it is actually quite unconventional and new. During public occasions, Ri Sol Ju has worn relatively shorter skirts and form-fitting attire that are adorned with eye-catching designs. She also wears on her finger a ring that was presumably gifted by Kim Jong-un.
Many North Korean women try to follow her example, and women’s fashion has had to adapt accordingly. As a result, North Korean markets reportedly sell more necklaces, bracelets and rings than ever before. The preference for wedding rings and bracelets has risen as well. This development coincides with growing numbers of North Korean citizens who prefer South Korean products, leading to a Hallyu (South Korean cultural wave) effect for South Korean accessories.
UMG: It is widely known that North Korean markets often sell South Korean products. But how do such accessories come to enter these markets?
KMJ: Based on what I know, products are often brought to North Korea across the Chinese border. Trading companies and smugglers that specialize in handicraft goods are responsible for bringing in accessories. I was also asked by some female acquaintances in North Korea to send South Korean earrings and necklaces in 2015. It is heartening to see North Korean women, just like women elsewhere, indulge themselves in taking care of their appearance.
Last summer, one North Korean woman I spoke with said that she managed to sneak South Korean accessories past customs after visiting China by placing them one by one in Chinese packaging paper. She said that more and more North Korean citizens living further from the border, in cities such as Pyongyang or Pyongsong (South Pyongan Province), are seeking South Korean products. As a result, she was able to sell her items to wholesalers from the respective regions. This growing market is a significant social change from before when wearing decorative accessories incited criticisms of excessive capitalist behavior, and was consequently frowned upon. However, now there is a bit more freedom when it comes to dressing oneself up, which is a welcome change for North Korean women.
UMG: It seems as if all women share this desire to keep up their appearances. How much do South Korean accessories cost in the North Korean markets?
KMJ: According to inside reports, South Korean accessories are much more expensive than Chinese accessories in the North Korean markets. The average price of South Korean earrings in Ryanggang Province and North Hamgyong Province are 25,000 KPW. Necklaces generally range from 18,000 KPW to 30,000 KPW, while the price of couple rings can start at around 25,000 KPW and reach up to 300,000 KPW depending on the quality of material.
Couple rings in the 300,000 KPW price range are generally made of gold—the equivalent of 18 carat gold sold in South Korea—and mainly bought by the upper middle class in North Korea. Given that one kilogram of rice in North Korea currently costs 5,000 KPW, the price of one gold ring is enough to buy 60 kilograms of rice. So it is no wonder that average North Korean citizens are unable to afford such rings as wedding gifts.