As South Korean culture has made its way north over the last decade, North Korean women are holding men to higher standards as prospective husbands, according to defectors.
The “Korean Wave” of material illicitly smuggled into the extremely closed society includes Southern television dramas and soap operas that have led women to adjust their expectations of what a partner can bring to a marriage.
This appears to be particularly true in urban settings.
Previously, satisfying military service was the single most important condition qualifying a young man as an eligible bachelor in North Korea.
But according to a defector who attended a prestigious university in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, that quality has since been replaced by the ideal of “a man who passionately loves his woman.”
“Young men who had completed their military service and were attending university used to seek their bride among the daughters of officials working for the central authorities in Pyongyang, or among the daughters of trading officials,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous.
“However, those young men are now having a hard time finding their better half, as most of them seem to lack the tenderness and warmth that women seem to be looking for these days.”
The same defector said that until the late 1990s, North Korean women preferred men who had completed their military service, were university graduates and Workers’ Party members, were in good moral standing, and owned some possessions.
But today, in addition to those conditions, a young man in North Korea must know how to “love tenderly,” and be in possession of electronic appliances such as a TV or a refrigerator, which are symbols of economic wealth and accomplishment.
Recently, it appears that even having completed one’s military service is no longer an absolutely necessary condition.
North Korean women’s attitude towards marriage has changed for two main reasons, the defector said.
“The social and economic status of women has improved while dependence on one’s husband has practically disappeared; and South Korean soap operas have significantly influenced North Korean women’s perceptions.”
Changing role of women
As North Korea sank into a deep economic crisis in the mid-1990s, women began trading at North Korea’s informal open markets, and started making money. Since then, many women have become the de facto bread winners for their families.
As this process was taking place, South Korean television also played a major part in influencing the views of North Korean women.
As North Korean women were watching South Korean TV dramas about romantic love, such as “Winter Sonata,” “An Autumn Tale,” or “Stairway in Heaven,” they were mesmerized by passionate young South Korean actors.
Another North Korean defector, who arrived in South Korea in 2007, said that Winter Sonata had made a particularly large impression on women at the time.
“Winter Sonata and the romantic love between [South Korean actor] Bae Young-joon and [South Korean actress] Choi Ji-woo charmed North Korean women,” the defector said.
“From that point on, the atmosphere surrounding the dating culture in North Korea changed.”
In the past, the defector said, young men used to write letters confessing their love to women, but nowadays love letters are considered to be out of style. More open manifestations of affection, such as walking together while holding hands, are now in fashion, at least in some cities.
Even the nature of dating places has changed.
In the past, young couples used to seek the peace and quiet of the Daedong River bank, parks or forests, away from the scrutiny of others.
Nowadays, the most popular dating places in upscale Pyongyang are bowling alleys or hotels, according to the defector.
North Korean women prefer tender, loving men, but certainly do not ignore a man’s economic prowess, the defector said.
“Many North Korean women have ‘Cinderella dreams,’ hoping for a safe and sound life, free of money worries,” the defector said.
“In order to get good jobs, such as a vendor at a foreign currency store, an employee at a trading company or a hotel receptionist, some women deliberately approach senior officials.”
“‘Love triangles’ are not uncommon these days.”
Reported by Jung Young for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.