Call me oppa: the changing dating culture in Kim Jong-un’s Korea 

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“Don’t wait for a man who’s in the military. In fact, don’t date anybody who is going to go into the military.”

This is something my mother used to say when I was young whenever the topic of romance came up. 

She is a tall and attractive woman. I believe she had the opportunity to meet people with better backgrounds than my father. But that didn’t happen.

One day just before her graduation from high school, she was on her way home when my father and his friends accosted her and surrounded her.

“I like you,” he said. “I want you to wait for me until I come back from the military. If you promise, I’ll let you go home.” 

Mother told me she agreed, not only because she liked my father, but also because she was afraid of all those men. She went on to graduate from university and she waited for ten years until father was discharged.

She married at the age of 28, which was relatively late in those days. Her friends admired her for having waited for so long. But mother herself regretted not having met other men during that time.

Thanks to her, my experience was different. In 2005, in my fifth year of high school (high school was six years then), a senior visited my house. He had just taken a physical examination prior to starting military service. He was riding a wine-colored bicycle with two headlights. Back then, bicycles were a symbol of wealth.

He called my name, and I went outside to see him. “I want to let you know before I go to the military that I have feelings for you,” he said.

My mother’s voice ran through my head. Don’t date men going to the military. I responded without thinking, 

“I can’t date a man going to the military,” I said. 

He avoided me after that. A few days later, he left for the unit he was assigned to. A girl was there at the station to see him off. She was in his class at school and a year older than me. She reminded me of my mother.

To be honest, I was very curious about relationships when I was young. I liked that he confessed his feelings for me. It wouldn’t have been that bad for us to have exchanged letters like my parents. Even after defecting and settling in South Korea, I sometimes wonder if he is okay. I regretted not dating anyone in North Korea.

Where I lived in rural North Hamgyong Province, people didn’t call boyfriends “oppa” (older brother) or give them nicknames like they do in South Korea. I couldn’t imagine calling a boyfriend that. It was too South Korean. We only used “oppa” for our older brothers and cousins.We would call boyfriends “dongmu” (comrade). 

Couples also wouldn’t directly say “I like you” or “I love you.” One way to show they were together was to ride the same bicycle. 

If a girl was often seen with a boy, some people disapproved. They even said that the parents hadn’t properly raised her. There were also those who called other people’s daughters “sluts” or “obsessed with men.”

As regards the dating scene in the North today, I should say that defectors aren’t always the best source of information because most of them were influenced by foreign culture in China. Their experience wasn’t typical. That said, listening to the stories of people who recently settled in South Korea, it seems that the dating style in North Korea has changed a lot.

One friend in her mid-twenties said she used to call her North Korean boyfriend “oppa” instead of “dongmu.” This is a new trend and it’s a direct reflection of the influence of South Korean dramas which people watch illegally. 

The reason now women don’t wait for men who are doing military service is that soldiers can meet other women in the area where they serve. Waiting is a risk.

Another change is that, while arranged marriages were common in the past, there is a growing perception on the part of people in such partnerships that they’ve lost out. Not being able to choose the person they really want makes them feel something is missing in their life. 

But the change that most surprises me is that recently there are many unmarried couples living together. “If you want to divorce, you have to go to court and pay money, but it takes a long time,” a defector friend explained. “Since they are not sure whether they’re going to eventually break up or not, couples who get on well choose to just live together. If they break up, they don’t have to go through the complicated process. A lot of people are living like this.”

This phenomenon seems to also have been influenced by dramas from South Korea and other countries. However, it is also a consequence of the disappearance of the distribution system where the male head of the household was the one who received the food rations and housing.

As the traditional patriarchal culture changes, the regime has revised some laws. Two years ago, for example, the Youth Education Guarantee Law was amended (Article 42, Clause 4) to prohibit lavish wedding services that were a way of highlighting a family’s wealth and connections.

Men used to emphasize “todae” (foundation), referring to family status, when choosing a woman, but the most popular women these days are said to be one with “Hallasan roots”. This refers to the highest mountain in South Korea and describes women or men with family members who have defected. This is quite a change. The old emphasis on background and status has been replaced by the factor that used to put a person in North Korea at the bottom of the social ladder, being related to a defector. The change is because the would-be spouse probably gets sent money.

Regarding these changes, a defector friend put it this way: “North Korea is probably the only place where you have to ask the government’s permission to have a relationship, even though it is a matter of the most basic human needs and emotions. As the character of these relationships change, so does the way they try to control it.”

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