Seoul to Soul: Dating and Marriage in the Two Koreas


2004-01-21
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North Koreans are much more reserved about sex and marriage than their South Korean counterparts, but men and women on both sides marry at about the same age and are increasingly putting work before marriage, RFA's Korean service reports.

And according to a series of in-depth interviews by RFA's Seoul correspondent Soo Kyung Lee, times--even in the world's last Stalinist country--ere changing. North Koreans are beginning to explore relationships between the sexes in ways that were impossible before.

"There was no such thing as dating before," North Korean defector Tai Jin Kim said. "People met at work and some of them started to like each other and then they got married. Otherwise, privileged and high-class people preferred arranged marriages," he told RFA.

Another defector, Hong Joo Jung, said her student days were relatively liberal compared with a more repressed atmosphere before 1990.

"When I was a student, I was able to date anybody freely. In South Korea, dating practices are the same all over the country, in Seoul or other places. But there are different dating styles in North Korea, for example in Pyongyang and other areas," she said.

Physical touch

Jung said that couples in Pyongyang might go to parks or movie theaters on dates, or go out for a drive, while those in the provinces just met their date at work.

"In Pyongyang, dating is very liberal. People hold hands in parks, or zoos, and they even kiss each other at movie theaters," she said.

In South Korea, the dating scene began in the 1970s, when young people first began looking for their own marriage partners instead of having a match arranged by the family.

Currently, around 90 percent of South Koreans get married because they love each other, rather than because of family arrangements.

In the North, however, most marriages were still arranged between families as late as the 1980s. The result is a more restrained dating scene, with a strong reserve around the physical expression of erotic feelings.

Jung, who has had relationships in both North and South Korea and is now married to a South Korean, said that attitudes toward sex in the South are much freer.

"The difference is that South Korean men feel more comfortable with physical contact," she said.

"North Korean people do not think physical expression is natural. They feel guilty about physical touch and those expressions have to be done in a private place."

Meanwhile, attitudes to marriage in both Koreas were pragmatic, with South Korean women looking for financial strength in a husband, while the men were more concerned with good looks and temperament. Neither side appeared to rush into matrimony.

"I would like to get married later," said 33-year-old South Korean Dong Dan Choi, who has been with his girlfriend for eight years now. "We both have a lot of work to do and I do not want the marriage to interrupt our work."

Work before marriage

South Korean Ji Eun Hong, who turns 32 next year, also emphasizes that work comes before marriage.

"I know I am not young anymore, but I don't think I am ready. I would like to get married after I settle in my professional field confidently," she said.

Men in North Korea usually get married at 30 or 31 and women at 28 or 29, which is similar to the average marrying age in the South.

North Koreans had previously married much younger, with the legal matrimonial age set at 18 for men and 17 for women.

In recent years, defectors say, the government has encouraged young people to devote more time to working for their country and the people, before settling down to have families.

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