5-jang 6-ki: What a North Korean woman needs for her dowry

Pride and Prejudice. Image by Apostolos Letov. CC BY-NC 2.0

I love Pride and Prejudice so much that I’ve watched it dozens of times. 

It gets praised a lot for the wonderful story and beautiful cinematography. But the reason I love it is because of how Darcy goes from believing he should marry someone from a prestigious family to falling in love with Elizabeth and eventually chooses sincerity over connections.

The turning point that really made it my favorite movie of all time was when the line “fate changes with love” kept coming to mind. 

Perhaps this line stuck with me because it resonates with my personal story in North Korea.

It implies that love has the power to change not just the heart but also significant decisions and directions in life. I became so enamored of this movie and the dialogue because it seemed to say that through love, we can reshape our destiny in unexpected ways.

If I were to say this out loud, my friends might tell me to keep quiet because it just makes me look like a dreamer who wants her life to turn around through marriage. 

There would be some truth in this. However, as someone with limited choices, the only way for me to achieve social advancement as a North Korean would be through marriage to someone of higher social status.

This unfolding of love in this way is common in North Korea. The marriage culture there places importance on the family background of the prospective spouse. Families with anti-Japanese revolutionary activist ancestors, such as Kim Il-sung, for example, are considered to have a good pedigree. 

With Pride and Prejudice I sometimes feel I’m watching a North Korean romance in a European setting. It evokes a sense of nostalgia every time. It’s a movie that conveys a subtle charm, helping me navigate between the societal boundaries of Western life I haven’t experienced and my 20 years in North Korea.

The goal of the female lead’s mother is to marry Elizabeth off to a good suitor. She reminds me of my own mother. 

In North Korea, you have to meet many conditions to marry the child of a party official. First, you have to be exceptionally good-looking. Then, of course, your own family background is crucial. Above all, you have to be healthy. Free from disease.

Han Seo-hee, 56, a defector who used to matchmake the children of officials in Pyongyang says that ideas of beauty are changing. 

“Family background is a basic condition,” she says. “Then there are looks. Current trends for the good wife, ideal mother type is an egg-shaped face and fair skin. In Pyongyang officials even want a woman who looks like the actresses in South Korean dramas and movies, even though it’s actually forbidden to watch them.”

Then there are the things a woman must prepare. These include items categorized as “5-jang 6-ki” (jang for furniture and ki for electronic appliances).

The 5-jang items would be things like bedding chests, wardrobes, decorative cabinets, dining cabinets (for displaying dishes) and bookshelves. Items in the 6-ki category would be television sets, refrigerators, sewing machines, electric fans and video recorders. Recently, computers, tablets, mobile phones and South Korean Cuckoo brand rice cookers have been added to the list.

“Nowadays, people with means acquire 8-jang 9-ki things to marry off their daughters,” said Choi, 26. “Just a few years ago, bicycles were added. Just before I left in 2020 people were buying motorcycles and modifying them for transportation.”

“I was receiving money from South Korea, so I planned to bring a motorcycle as my dowry. With just that, I could face a potential husband’s family without feeling inferior,” she said.

Im, who is from North Hamgyong Province, married the son of a manager at a ceramics factory in Kyongsong before defecting. Along with the traditional 5-jang 6-ki dowry, she also brought a washing machine and a water purifier. They were quality Japanese brands.

“In Kyongsong, there were returnees (Koreans in Japan who returned to North Korea) who received second-hand washing machines and refrigerators from their families in Japan,” she said. “They would sell them in the market. That’s where I got mine from. Before the early 2010s, washing machines as part of a dowry was really uncommon.”

“The trouble was we couldn’t use the washing machine and water purifier because there was no electricity,” she said. “They were just for show. Sometimes, electricity was supplied sporadically. Even if we tried to run the washing machine with that electricity, without a transformer, it didn’t work.” 

They manually pumped water and poured it into the tank attached to the purifier and used it that way.

“Looking back, it seems really unfair. Women had to acquire household appliances just to get married. If their background wasn’t good, it was difficult to find anyone suitable,” she said. 

“It’s ironic that Kim Jong-un emphasizes family background but his own mother was from Japan, a country North Korea hates,” she said. “Shouldn’t he be working in a coal mine or on a collective farm? His family background is worse than mine.”

Lee Jia

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