Romance, North Korean-Style

While talking on the phone with a friend from North Korea this morning, I brought up the subject of “Valentine’s Day.” With the rise in popularity of Valentine’s Day among young people in China of late, I was curious whether such a culture had spread to North Korea. In China, men and women exchange gifts on February 14th, also called “Qingrenjie (which means the ‘day for lovers’).”

“What is Valentine’s Day? Is that some kind of a ballet dance?”

While the Korean cultural wave and the Chinese cultural wave have been changing the minds and culture of North Korean people in the last decade, the Valentine’s Day culture does not seem to have spread throughout the country. First off, the date is inappropriate; February 16th is the “General’s Birthday,” which is considered the most important holiday in the North. Events celebrating and showcasing the people’s devotion litter the days before this holiday, so how can North Korean youth have the luxury of exchanging chocolates and confess their love to each other?

One of the things that left the deepest impression on me upon my arrival in South Korea is the free and normal expression of love between couples. Whenever I see young couples holding hands and embracing each other, I think of the women and men back home.

The expression of love by North Korean women is, to sum up, “old-fashioned.” Even if they have an interest in someone, they cannot easily express their feelings nor even approach them. However, with the increase in people coming and going abroad and the surge of South Korean dramas, it is not as uncommon to see expressions of love similar to those in South Korea among youths in their 20s.

Also, in North Korea, there are occasions for which women give gifts to their love interests, but the trend has evolved according to the era and by class.

From the 1980s until the mid-1990s, the type of a spouse most preferred by ordinary North Korean women (workers, farmers, and clerical workers) was, on average, a military official, a soldier recently released from service, or a male who had completed their military service as well as college. A popular item given as a gift was a “Workers’ Party badge” case.

The case, made from nylon thread, would have the Party slogan or the words “Workers’ Party” inscribed in red thread. The case—6 centimeters wide and 10 centimeters long–can be worn across the shoulders by its 150cm strap, which is knitted with red, light-pink and blue threads.

Some women knit gloves as a gift to their boyfriends. Colors are mostly black or blue with a check pattern on the back.

In actuality, party badge cases or gloves were not hugely expensive items, but from the perspective of poor North Korean women, they were simple gifts that could express their hearts.

Women in higher positions would prefer party or diplomatic officials or those working at the National Security Agency or the People’s Safety Agency. The gifts that women in this class gave to their interests were quite lavish. In particular, women from affluent homes gave watches, briefcases, or suits from the currency-exchange shops to their men as expressions of love.

Since the 2000s, women’s expressions of love in the elite class have become even bolder. Among female college students in Pyongyang, there have even been recent cases where the women would sing South Korean songs to their love interests while playing the guitar or the accordion. Among the students from Kim Il Sung University or the Pyongyang College of Light Industry, watching South Korean dramas or movies together has become a popular “date course.”

However, the “expressions of love” of ordinary North Korean women has been receding. It is difficult for them to even feed themselves, so they do not have the luxury of love. In particular, with economic incompetence and authoritarian attitudes among the men being sustained over a long time, the interest of lower-class women in marriage or dating has fallen significantly. Accordingly, numbers of women who have decided to forego marriage and live by themselves have been increasing.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find women who knit party badge cases with their own hands. With the economic crisis and the collapse in societal order, “romance in North Korea” has been gradually waning.

Whenever I look at couples in South Korea who are able to share their love on the streets, in the subway, or in cafes, forlorn North Korean women who have to endure this world while struggling against poverty come to my mind.