CHINA, Dandong: A North Korean waitress dances with a customer at a restaurant. Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown
SEOUL—North Korea has a well-earned reputation as one of the most tightly closed and rigorously controlled countries on Earth. But when it comes to the privacy of the bedroom, even the all-powerful North Korean Workers’ Party is largely hands-off, according to North Korean defectors.
Intellectuals and artists in the Workers’ Paradise have long espoused a fairly open and liberal set of views around sexual relationships, according to former North Korean artist and defector Lee Yoon Jeong, despite a widespread lack of sex education for young people.
“The culture of sex in North Korea is not conservative,” she said in a recent interview with RFA’s Korean service. “A liberal sex culture is certainly not encouraged, but as far as sex is concerned, people make their own choices.”
Lee said high divorce rates, and the tendency for Party officials to have mistresses and extra-marital affairs, meant that the Party was reticent about dictating to the people about their love lives.
“The Workers’ Party is truly in no position to regulate relationships between men and women,” she told reporter Jinhee Bonny. “The authorities may control everything, but they could never dictate matters of love between North Korean men and women.”Kim and the Joy Brigade
Many North Korean defectors abruptly come in contact with...sex culture in China, and that is why many of them end up having distorted views on sexual mores in the free world of capitalist societies.
Defector Jeong Young
Jeong Young, a North Korean defector, said North Korean university students enjoyed a certain amount of freedom in dating and relationships.
“There is a tendency among North Korean university students to be liberal when it comes to dating,” she said. “For example, when they go to a friend’s birthday party, they play foreign music, dance disco, and are very natural in their approach to relationships between the sexes, Western-style.”
North Korea’s political culture, on the surface, appears to lean toward extreme conservatism, with propaganda posters showing rows of clean-cut young men and women, saluting the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, or remembering the Great Leader, his father Kim Il Sung.
But Kim Jong Il in his younger days enjoyed an international reputation as a playboy, surrounding himself in his “Joy Brigade” with hand-picked young women who were given the job of keeping the heir to the North Korean leadership happy.
Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was born out of his relationship with his first mistress, actress Song Hye Rim. She was a married woman at the time she moved in with Kim Jong Il and was never recognized as more than his mistress.
Kim Jong Il’s unrestricted sexual behavior was highly contagious, and he surrounded himself with members of the Party elite, who also boasted about their drinking and womanizing, North Korean analysts and defectors said.Famine brought prostitution
Since that era, adultery, premarital sex, and cohabitation have become more prevalent among ordinary young people in North Korea, although homosexual relationships are still discouraged.
The famine of the 1990s, which forced thousands of defectors across the border into China every year in search of jobs and food, brought in its wake greater openness about sexuality, but also a thriving trade in trafficking and prostitution.
Professor Lee Won Woong of Kwandong University in Kangnung, South Korea, said that the famine itself prompted many women to take up prostitution in return for food for themselves and their families.
“Many women have willingly or unwillingly gone into prostitution, as selling oneself has become a means of survival,” Lee said, adding that the transformation of sexual culture in North Korea was on an unprecedented scale.
“The divorce rate is rising rapidly, families are falling apart, and married couples get separated without properly filing for divorce,” Lee said. “If married couples live separately, this is a de facto divorce, and women are left to fend for themselves without suitable legal protection. Many of these women, left on their own in society, are exposed to this rapidly changing sex culture.”
The North Korean authorities say they are cracking down on the underground sex industry but defectors say they are in fact rather reluctant to do anything, as the livelihoods of many people depend on this booming enterprise.
Prostitution is visible, defectors say, around train stations and in the saunas, karaoke bars, and restaurants in the bigger cities.Backstreet abortions
Some of the women who “sell night flowers” find themselves on the street after a marital break-up, while others, according to human rights workers, do so willingly.
According to defector Kim Jinhee, who was a traditional medicine doctor in North Korea before she defected, the repercussions for some women of a new sexual liberalism without adequate social services can be severe.
“Abortion is illegal in North Korea, as it is considered that it takes human life. In my case, I went to a hospital to get an abortion done, but they wouldn’t do it,” she said.
“However, there are instances where people want to get rid of problematic and unwanted pregnancies, and these are handled with discretion. After the procedure, the health of the woman who has had the abortion needs to be monitored, but in order to evade unwanted attention, that is often avoided or overlooked. This has become a social and health problem in North Korea,” Kim added.
Prof. Lee said North Koreans of both sexes were also vulnerable to the negative side-effects of Chinese pornography, either from their time in hiding in China, or from exposure to smuggled Chinese adult material in North Korea, because they had little or no sex education.
The result was that many North Korean defectors living in South Korea were experiencing various forms of sex addiction after exposure to Chinese porn, Lee said.
And North Korean women defectors, who were engaged in the sex industry as a way of surviving their transition through China, are often still involved in a similar line of work even after arriving in South Korea, he added.
“Generally, there is no sex education in North Korea,” Jeong Young agreed. “There is no teaching on contraception, or on the very basics of sex education. Talk about sex is just avoided.”
“In China, adult material is widely available to computer users, the sex culture is very liberal, and sexual promiscuity is rife. Many North Korean defectors abruptly come in contact with such sex culture in China, and that is why many of them end up having distorted views on sexual mores in the free world of capitalist societies,” she added.Original reporting in Korean by Jinhee Bonny. RFA Korean service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Translated and researched by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.