In South Korea, a new Korean term “bihon” has come into general use. It refers to people who choose to remain unmarried or the state of “being single.” The word reflects that people are increasingly regarding marriage as an individual choice and not a process that they must go through in life.
In North Korea, it is said that an increasing number of young people are living with someone without officially getting married or ruling out marriage altogether. Also, South Korean-style dating, love and marriage customs are reportedly spreading in the North, as a result of the inflow of South Korean cultural content including movies and TV series, prompting the authorities to crack down on them.
Today, we’ll talk about changing trends in dating and marriage in North Korea with Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korean media often showed newly wedded couples who take outdoor wedding photos with the blessings of their relatives or friends. But reports say that the authorities are regulating this type of wedding ceremony ritual as of late, based on the Youth Education Guarantee Act that was adopted in September 2021. The fourth clause of Article 42 of the law prohibits extraordinary wedding ceremonies.
Formerly, it was trendy, especially among wealthy Pyongyang citizens and residents in big cities, to hold wedding ceremonies at famous restaurants like Okryugwan(옥류관) and Kyunghunggwan(경흥관). Some held wedding ceremonies at restaurants on “Rainbow boats,” a cruise boat on the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Until 2017, having a restaurant wedding reception was associated with well-off people in Pyongyang in state media. Brides were seen wearing wedding dresses imported from China for photo shoots, while posh restaurants dedicated to wedding ceremonies offered meals at five dollars per guest. That’s quite expensive.
Since 2018, however, North Korea has regulated the wedding business that is defined as part of extraordinary and bourgeois lifestyles and clamped down on foreign culture that only reveals a wealth gap and loosens socialist culture. The North went as far as to prohibit relevant practices by law.
North Korea’s family law states that marriage is allowed from the age of 18 for men and 17 for women. Until the early 2000s, the ideal age to marry was considered between 23 and 25 for women and between 27 and 30 for men. But the average age of marriage has been steadily increasing in recent years. Here’s a North Korean defector.
These days, many North Koreans hope to marry someone they really love. That’s a big change from the past. Previously, people who still remain single in their 30s were considered to be out of the ordinary. But now, many are reluctant to have children and want to enjoy the “You Only Live Once (YOLO)” lifestyle. They believe they can live a happy life alone without getting hitched.
In the past, North Koreans typically had arranged marriages. According to North Korean defectors, dating trends among the younger generation are completely different from those of the older generation.
Young couples have become far bolder, compared to the past. They hug each other on the streets and even kiss after dark. Older people frown upon public displays of affection, but many are seen walking hand in hand.
It seems public perception of traditional marriage has changed in North Korea, while many young people seek a romantic relationship.
In the past, North Koreans would choose an arranged marriage planned by their families. But today, it has become common for people to go on a date with someone they love and marry the person. Until the early 2000s, young people would date someone but marry a different person through an arranged marriage process. While love marriages have become common, upper-class people still prefer arranged marriages, in which the social and economic status of the prospective spouse’s family is taken into consideration.
Women who are financially stable and self-sufficient, in particular, have become more active about dating and marriage, contributing to changing trends in love marriages. Capable women have a relationship with men who have a chance of success and support the men. After marriage, the women pursue greater wealth and power. Strictly speaking, it could be viewed as an investment for their future, rather than a love marriage. That is, some people regard dating and marriage as the means of gaining wealth and power.
A North Korean short story titled Talent released in 2022 shows that love marriages have become more of the norm.
In the story, an old man surnamed Ko and his wife had a child in their later years. Their only son is short in height and wears thick glasses, as he is short-sighted. Worse yet, he is exempt from military service, which means he has some serious flaw. But he is clever with his hands, and he receives prize money and awards. His parents see their son bringing their would-be daughter-in-law, who is beautiful and even taller than their son.
The young couple’s dating process is not described in detail, but both the son and the parents are willing to accept a love marriage. The parents are overjoyed to see their son marrying a girl, even though he has some issues. That would be impossible in an arranged marriage.
Except big cities including Pyongyang, wedding ceremonies in many regions in North Korea look like a party of a small neighborhood. A 2020 poem A Story of Marriage and Blessing written by author Ryom Hyung-mi portrays village people preparing for a wedding table.
While people in big North Korean cities may rent a restaurant for a wedding ceremony, residents in farming villages still maintain traditional wedding customs. A wedding ceremony is held at the house of the bride or the groom. People in the village make food together and share it to congratulate the newly wedded couple.
The festival is all about pan-fried pancakes. The poem depicts village people gathering round at a yard and pan-frying various vegetables, including Korean zucchini, and even flowers. The poem describes the scenes of the smell of the fritters spreading throughout the village and steam rising from the rice cake steamer, with large bowls and baskets filled with delicious food and rice cake. It is not just a family event but the festival of the entire village.
When the boisterous party is over, family members and relatives of the newlywed take photos. This is probably one of the most important parts of the wedding for the newly married couples, although they are supposed to take their wedding pictures in front of the statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Some rent a professional studio or look for best photo spots for their wedding photo shoots.
When a wedding ceremony is held at the house of the bride or the groom, blankets are stacked up on the floor and the couple sits on them behind the wedding table so they are not blocked from view because of many dishes placed on the table. Couples may take photos at a photo studio on their engagement day, but they usually take pictures at the wedding table on their wedding day. They may invite a photographer, and their family members and relatives take photos with them by turns.
Lately, some shoot videos with their mobile phones and share them. A photographer may shoot and edit videos in a way to make them look like South Korean wedding videos. Couples take pictures inside or outside the home, and also at tourist attractions in the neighborhood. They may rent a car and go far away for outdoor shooting.
Feeling excited, newlyweds make a lot of preparations for their wedding ceremony, a once-in-a-lifetime event. But their real marriage life might be far from their romantic imagination. After marriage, they could be in unreasonable or difficult situations. A 2013 North Korean TV drama Our Neighbors deals with this subject.
The heroine in the drama has a job, just like her husband. But she is under fire for neglecting her duty as a wife and a homemaker. In North Korea, the social atmosphere like this is one of the factors that make young women hesitate to marry. That’s why many refuse to walk down the aisle and choose to just live with someone instead. Even after getting married, some do not register their marriage.
In North Korea, the family is viewed as a “cell,” or the basic unit of society. But the younger generation does not really embrace the traditional concept of marriage and family. Young people’s views of marriage are different from those of the older generation. For example, many avoid marriage itself.
Women, in particular, have had to support their family after getting married since the Arduous March period in the 1990s. That’s a major change from the past, when their husbands received rations to feed the family. Also, women automatically join the neighborhood watch program called inminban(인민반), the lowest administrative unit, as well as the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, upon their marriage. Married women are mobilized into various labor campaigns. If they want to skip the campaigns to earn money at the market, they have to pay some money. Once they get married, it is hard to get a divorce. That’s why many women live with men without being married to verify whether the men would be ideal husbands.
Even if they hold a wedding ceremony, they delay having children. Even if they give birth to a baby, they postpone registering the birth of their child. More and more young people in the North tend to avoid legal systems that might restrict individual freedom so they can enjoy as many rights as possible.
In February this year, a North Korean propaganda site known as DPRK Today said that Korea has traditionally been called the well-mannered country of the East. It stressed that Koreans have believed, once they tie the knot, it is their duty and great tradition to share joy and sorrow with their spouse and stay together forever. However, it seems young North Koreans these days no longer think the same way.