Last summer I spent two weeks as an English language partner to North Korean defector middle and high school students in a small town on the outskirts of Seoul. After four years, I found myself once again immersed in the complex jungle of teenage angst, hormones, and emotions. Well, I know from my university experience that those unpredictable attitudes and moods don’t necessarily go away when you get older and that everyone manages to overcome his inner-teenager individually. But, I remember that while we did our best to think about what kind of activities would be both fun and advantageous to our seventeen through twenty-year-old students, at least one person would say something along the lines of our need to understand that these students weren’t just defectors preparing for new lives in South Korea; they were also hormonally driven teenagers on the brink of young love, experiencing their first infatuations, and learning the art of flirtation. I did not notice too many hormonal imbalances erupting before my eyes, but what about attraction and relationships in North Korea? To go even further, what about sex in North Korea?
Notorious for a reputation of severe control and discipline, to what extent does the North Korean regime play a role in sexual intimacy? According to Radio Free Asia, the simple answer is that “when it comes to the privacy of the bedroom, even the all-powerful North Korean Workers’ Party is largely hands-off” (Love and Sex in North Korea). A particular defector from North Korea who was interviewed in the Radio Free Asia article also admitted to a relatively liberal interpretation of sexual relationships. Though it would be an exaggeration to suggest that North Koreans welcome and advocate the sexual “freedoms” of the West, it is more appropriate to argue that though the people may not endorse a liberal sex culture, the North Korean people do have freedom to steer the course of their sexual relationships. However, the reasons for North Korea’s hand-off policy are diverse and complex. Most of it may be attributed to the nefarious practices of the Workers’ Party itself and to the situation that ensued following the famines of the 1990s that pushed people to desperation and defection.
First, consideration of the North Korean Workers’ Party’s sexual character explains the lack of intrusion assumed by the party in response to the people’s sexual behavior. Radio Free Asia explains that, with records of mistresses, extra-marital affairs, and high divorce rates, it was out of the party’s place to attempt to commandeer the love lives and sexual characters of the North Korean people despite the party’s control of most other affairs. Kim John Il’s behavior in particular would serve to caution the government on interfering too heavily in people’s intimacy. Surrounding himself with a group of hand-selected women that he had labeled the “Joy Brigade,” Kim Jong Il received an “international reputation as a playboy” (Love and Sex in North Korea). The married actress Sung Hye Rim gave birth to Kim Jong Il’s first son, Kim Jong Nam, a testament to his father’s unrestrained sexual decorum. Likewise, the Workers’ Party elite mimicked his sexual behavior. Secondly, North Korea lacks a widespread sex education. Therefore, North Korean youths learn very little about contraception, and rarely have the opportunity to voice concerns about sex since it is largely avoided in conversation. Their point of reference seems limited to the notoriety of Kim Jong Il and rumors of the Western world.
Lastly, the famine of the 1990s pushed thousands of North Koreans into desperation and forced thousands more to defect to China in search of jobs and food. Unfortunately, many North Korean women were drawn into the world of sex trafficking and prostitution as a result. Prostitution was a means to survive and provided food for the women and their families. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution was not solely confined to the hopelessness and exploitation that life in a foreign land like China seemed to entail; rather, prostitution spread within North Korea as well, transforming the sexual culture from that period onward. Families had been falling apart in the severe circumstances that followed the famines, often leaving women to fight for themselves. Because of the underground sex industry, prostitution was an available option. Their livelihoods depending on the sex industry, prostitutes could be found around train stations, restaurants, and bars in the larger cities. The same could be said of the sex industry outside of North Korea, in the neighboring China. However, in the case of China, it is probable that it is often less by the volition of the women that they get involved in the world of prostitution or end up as brides to Chinese farmers because of the language and cultural barriers. With so many transformations in the family and sexual relationships, it would be unlikely that younger generations did not notice.
So maybe the scarcity of hormonal eruption that I witnessed in my short stay as an English tutor to the North Korean young adults is just a testament to an understanding of the changes in the sexual culture of their own country and the complexity of sexual relationships in times of desperation; or maybe their behavior was evidence of the more liberal ideas that have already taken root in regards to relationships despite the tendency for outsiders to assume that their conservative environment would automatically produce a conservative approach to relationships. Maybe the young adults were just cool and didn’t let their uncertainty surface – which was true for many other things. Overall, as we can see from the changes that have been occurring throughout the region over the past couple of decades, there is more to North Korea and the North Korean people than our assumptions and expectations. Nevertheless, there is also the possibility that the information transmitted from Radio Free Asia’s article, Love and Sex in North Korean, is also an aspect of how the defectors interviewed for the article wanted to be seen. We may not know until unification – when we can finally gain an uninhibited view of North Korea. Maybe they are just as conservative as people imagine, maybe not…