By Andrei Lankov
When Communism still was a radical movement dominated by urban intellectuals, it took an unusually feminist position on many social issues. Early communists were skeptical of the patriarchic family (seen as a stronghold of reactionary views and a support mechanism for the old order), they unconditionally supported gender equality and, in the early stages of their rule, used affirmative action to increase the presence of women in the government and the bureaucracy.
The early Communists also had liberal views on sex and marriage. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet state abolished obligatory marriage registration, legalized abortion, made divorce remarkably easy, but also made sure that sufficient alimony would be paid to children in case of a marriage breaking down.
However, this liberal attitude did not last long. In the real life, Communism soon became Stalinism, and Stalinist states came to see the family as their natural ally, a place of patriotic indoctrination and the foundation of the entire social system. Therefore, all earlier liberties were either curtailed or abolished outright and by 1945, the Soviet officials had begun to extoll family values with a level of enthusiasm similar to that of a Republican Party candidate in the U.S. primaries.
The newly established government in the northern half of the Korean peninsula immediately embraced the then standard Soviet approach to the family. The North Korean state was probably stricter than the Soviets themselves because even in the 1940s the state’s ideology was quite nationalist and Confucianism itself was (and is) quite pro-family.
Nonetheless, the North Korean state initially launched some liberal reforms in the gender policy area. In 1946, a gender equality law abolished formal legal discrimination against women. Concubinage was also banned and the nascent state began an eradication campaign against prostitution.
Actually, high-end prostitution had been part of elite-level entertainment and recreation for centuries. Tellingly, the first meeting between Kim Il-sung and his future political partners took place in an elite club somewhat similar to the “room salons” of today (and as surviving pictures testify, alluring girls were also present and prominent at this meeting which took place in late September 1945).
That said, the North Korean government was nonetheless remarkably successful at eradicating prostitution, so by 1950 sex for sale had all but disappeared from the North. Interestingly, former kisaeng (high-level prostitutes-cum-entertainers) were classified as “reactionary elements” so that not only the girls themselves but their descendants were subject to hereditary discrimination.
In the late 1940s, even the smallest of sexual references disappeared from North Korean popular culture – the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs from the South Korean puppet clique could be depicted as lustful, but this was a sign of their base and corrupt nature. In movies and novels, good people could not have any sexual feelings until the mid-1980s when it became possible to hint that good guys (and girls) kiss, too.
Extra-marital and pre-marital sex was frowned upon and became an extremely difficult and risky (but not completely impossible) undertaking. A woman was supposed to remain a virgin until marriage – a rare issue on which the old women of the village and local party secretary were in complete agreement. No statistics are available, but from interviews with North Korean refugees, it seems that most followed the rules, so the majority of the Korean women did remain virginal until their marriage.
There were exceptions, of course. A good example is the story of Mrs Y, who in the late 1970s was serving as an anti-aircraft gunner in the North Korean army. Once she had sex with her boyfriend who also was in the military, and soon discovered that she was pregnant. She was terrified by the news, since pregnancy for an unmarried female soldier would lead to dishonorable discharge. It was quite likely that she would not even be able to return to her native Pyongyang after such a scandalous, indecent act. In this case though, things worked out well. Both the boyfriend and his influential family liked the girl and rushed to the rescue. They used their connections to obtain a medical discharge before it was too late. The couple immediately married, and as they say, lived happily ever after.
Things might have changed since then, but even nowadays, sexual activity between members of the military remains a serious offense which might gravely damage the career prospects of the participants (and in a country of well-established double standards, a woman’s reputation would suffer greatly as well).
Divorce in North Korea is perfectly legal, but until the late 1990s, it was seen as an immoral act. For a party member, divorce would lead to a lengthy and unpleasant investigation, and a divorced official would encounter great obstacles in his or her career.
Some visitors to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s reported isolated instances of prostitution, especially in major international hotels, but these were rare cases. For a few years in the 1980s, Pyongyang could boast its own hostess club which was run by the North Korean authorities in the Potonggang Hotel. The hostesses, however, were not North Koreans. They were Thai girls, who were invited to entertain guests in this unusual establishment known as the “Ansan Club.” It did not last long though, and closed around 1988.
The great social disruption of the 1990s had much impact on the sexual mores of North Korea – state and people. The state lost its ability to control the daily behavior of its people and the traditional values that had been fostered by the state lost much of their attractiveness.
The great increase in the economic power of women also had much impact on the North Korean family. Most North Korean factories ceased to operate in the 1990s and as a result most North Koreans came to make most of their money from the market. While men are expected and indeed required to attend their non-functioning factories, women enthusiastically embrace business. Therefore nowadays the primary breadwinners are women, not men.
In this situation, many families have fallen apart – especially because, in the new situation, the state’s restrictive approach to divorce lost much of its impact. Divorce might remain a career obstacle, but in the new situation the career of a petty official became much less attractive to the average North Korean.
The emergence of North Korean grassroots capitalism led to the development of a nouveau riche. Many members of this new social group are women, but on the higher levels of the nascent new hierarchy males are still overrepresented. This has led to revival in prostitution targeting both successful entrepreneurs and less demanding itinerant merchants. Hookers now can be found near major railway stations and an adventurous pair can easily rent a room nearby for their encounter.
Another part of the new reality is the spread of pornographic videos imported from China. Watching porn is strictly illegal and is somewhat dangerous, but is widely done nonetheless.
So it is possible to say that the sexual revolution is making inroads into North Korea as well. However, we should not overestimate the scale of these changes. When it comes to sexual mores, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is more permissive than the North Korea of his grandfather’s era, but it is still much less liberal than present-day South Korea. It is telling that most North Korean refugees find the sexual permissiveness and openness of the South to be shocking or at least strange and incomprehensible.
Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University in 1985. He currently teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul and is the author of several books on North Korean history and politics.