Trials and Perils of Love in North Korea

The 14th of February. Valentine’s Day. When lovers take to the streets, holding hands. Young people head for cinemas, restaurants and bars, confessing their love with chocolate and other gifts. Valentine’s Day has become a worldwide day for confessions of love.

Even in places such as Russia and China, Valentine’s Day is now enormously popular for young people. It may make you wonder whether there is Valentine’s Day in North Korea. The answer? Well, it certainly won’t be marked on the North Korean calendar any time soon, that’s for sure, but there a few, just a few young people in North Korea who have seen the fuss about Valentine’s Day thanks to South Korean television dramas, although there is no culture of exchanging gifts.

Anyway, even if you are one of the few people who knows about the day, it is hard to find time for confessions of love or a carnival atmosphere. There’s a good reason for that; everybody is far too busy preparing for Kim Jong Il’s birthday on the 16th.

The Dear Leader’s birthday is counted as the top North Korean national holiday. With all the festivities in the build up to this day there is no room for chocolates or sweet nothings between lovers.

Besides which, one of the characteristics of a closed society is that intimate relationships are subject to a wider variety of restrictions than in liberal democracies.

First of all, there are few opportunities for men and women to meet each other. Popular phenomena in South Korea such as blind dates are unheard off in the North, so most relationships tend to develop between peers, friends and co-workers; in schools or the workplace. Young North Koreans are more subtle than their southern counterparts, too: instead of ‘Let’s go out’, they tend to prefer ‘Let’s be companions’ or ‘How about becoming closer companions?’

Regardless, relationships are rarely free in North Korea anyway because they are expressly forbidden in schools and the military. Those who try it in school know that if their relationship becomes public knowledge, then punishment up to and including expulsion awaits.

One defector from Pyongyang explained to The Daily NK, “There were many controls over love between men and women in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We’re not just talking about not being able to hang out in public together; men and women caught merely talking to one another would be teased as ‘lovers’.”

Seen as being a result of capitalist foreign elements, students were sure to be criticized. “Students, including university students caught seeing one another could create an ideological conflict, and in the worst cases would be expelled from their institution,” she explained.

But there was no stopping the force that binds young lovers. Young men and women would continue their relationships in secret, behind closed doors where nobody was watching. Parks and riverbanks away from prying eyes were the prime locations, especially under cover of darkness.

Mind you, the hassle didn’t end with marriage, which was also subject to restriction. Not necessarily legally, but in the form of mores that dissuaded people from marrying young. Part of this was based on a past directive from Kim Jong Il for women not to marry before the age of 25. The spring of youth is better spent working, or so goes the theory. These thoughts pervaded people’s actions into the 1990s.

And then, in that same decade, something happened. Control over relationships died off to some extent, and popular thinking began to change. Streets and parks again became scenes of couples enjoying a day out.

Nowadays, cinemas, bowling alleys and amusement parks have again become places for dating. Particularly popular amongst young couples, so we are told, is Pyongyang’s Moonsoo Funfair, an amusement park on the banks of the Taedong River, much like you would see anywhere else. Moonsoo Funfair, which opened in 1994, has everything; ten rides, a cinema, a billiards hall and a swimming pool.

Entering the 21st century, some North Koreans have experience of foreign culture through China, and on the back of the ‘Hallyu Wave’ from South Korea enjoy a more relaxing form of date. Public displays of affection are out of the question, but mutual expressions of love are said to be enjoying a revival.

For example, some younger folk, more susceptible to pop culture, now serenade their loved ones with South Korean songs, or watch southern dramas and movies in secret. South Korean words such as ‘yeochin’, a contraction meaning ‘girlfriend’, and another word meaning ‘darling’ have entered the vernacular as a result.

That said, North Korean society as a whole is always a difficult place to make ends meet, and people’s interest in marriage and courtship wanes with the economic times.

Another defector told The Daily NK, “In the past, a woman my age would be treated as an old maid if she was still unmarried, but now many have lost that interest in dating and getting married. Some women these days have even decided to live on their own.”

“Many men are stuck in old-fashioned ways, but more than that they have no earning power either, so often the woman of the house has to take responsibility for eking out a living. A lot of women are now making the choice not to go down that road.”