North Korea’s Marriage Culture
Translated by Natalie Grant
Marriage is defined in the dictionary as “the formal union of a man and a woman into husband and wife.” Actually, most people harbor romantic notions of marriage from the time they are young until the time they get married. In our country (North Korea) alone, many young people search for a partner in order to get married, and when they find a suitable mate, they take the leap into marriage. So, what is marriage in North Korea like?
Prior to the wedding in North Korea, the bride and groom first hold an engagement ceremony. As a thank you to the bride’s family for “gifting” their daughter, the groom’s family will give the bride’s family clothing and makeup that she can wear on the wedding day. After the engagement ceremony, elders from the two sides sit opposite each other and set a date for the wedding. In South Korea, weddings are held year-round, but in North Korea they are usually only held in spring and fall. This is because summers are too hot and winters are too cold. However, this is not the only reason: In the fall, farmers in rural areas earn money from selling their harvest and can use this to pay for the wedding, which is why autumn is by far the most popular season for weddings.
The majority of North Korean weddings are traditional, formal affairs. But actually, these days the words “traditional wedding” no longer means that everyone wears a hanbok and bows to each other. Rather, women wearhanbok while the men wear Western-style suits. Weddings are typically held in large community spaces, including community centers or even workplaces. In Pyongyang, the most popular wedding locations such as Kyeongheung Hall, Munsu Restaurant, and Cheongryu Hall are all restaurants. Typically, a friend or coworker will both officiate and host at the wedding, and a tidy banquet with rice cakes, noodles, corn, and alcohol is prepared. As a wedding gift, the guests typically give either 5-10 North Korean won or some rice, corn, or other food. In addition, it is typical for a marrying couple to receive a gift of around 100 won from their places of work. All of these gifts are an enormous help to those hosting the wedding to cover costs.
After the wedding, how do the two families sort out the provision of household furnishings for the newly married couple? Because in North Korea, unlike South Korea, housing is publicly provided by the state, the pressure to “prepare a house” is much lower, and it is taken as a given that the newlyweds will live together with their in-laws. In this case, “household furnishings” mainly consist of the bride and groom’s daily necessities, with the groom providing fabric and makeup, and the bride preparing an armoire, sewing machine, bowls, blankets, and other household items. Furthermore, if the bride’s family is better-off, they will even purchase some heirlooms for the couple. On the contrary, however, when the children of upper class members of the Central Party get married, both families pass on a set of wedding gifts called a “General’s Box” (대장함). The majority of grooms prepare clothing or cosmetics for their brides, while the brides include material to make suits for the whole grooms’ family. Additionally, when daughters of Korean-Japanese families or high-ranking party officials get married, their families prepare a variety of household furnishings that are not accessible to the average citizen, including blanket chests, desks, shoe closets, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and fans.
As outside information and trends began to enter North Korea from the 1990s, there has been a rise in dating couples. As recently as the 1970s, the majority of marriages in North Korea were still arranged, but beginning in the 1980s the increasing trend of “love marriages” gave rise to the North Korea we see today. Furthermore, there have been changes in what kind of men are preferred by North Korean women. In the past, men who worked for powerful departments such as the National Safety and Security Agency were the most popular, but these days North Korean
We’ve talked about marriage customs in North Korea. We are all one people, and yet isn’t it interesting how different North Korea’s customs are? On the other hand, because we are one people, there are still many similarities between our countries in terms of marriage customs. Seeing these similarities makes me hope for quick reunification. After reunification, we will probably be able to see many “Southern man, Northern woman” couples unite in marriage.