How to have fun in North Korea

Remembering low-watt TVs and off-key singing in the dark as spare-time enjoyment
September 18th, 2013
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Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Paul J. from Australia asks:

What do people in North Korea do to have fun in their spare time?


People do not have much in the way of individual pastimes under the totalitarian system in North Korea. For starters, the idea of “free time” is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.

I recall my dad going to work at 7:30 a.m. and coming back home after 8 p.m. After dinner, he read newspapers. When he found interesting stories in the paper, he called us in and asked us to read them aloud. His interesting stories were mostly about a certain patriotic young student who had dedicated his own life to protect portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, recent news about joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises, or South Korea’s military “provocations” on the West Sea. But then, whenever we had our power back, my youngest brother ran over to plug in the TV.

The TV we had in our home was an award from Kim Il Sung that my father had received for his outstanding performance at work in 1993. Back then, in the 1990s, TV was so rare that only one or two households per town had a TV set. Our family was the first to have one in our neighborhood. Every evening there was a bunch of kids crowding into my house to watch TV and I had to stand by the foyer like a little gatekeeper to check who was entering. My mother allowed in most of the kids whose feet were clean and who were mature enough not to mess up the house. However, unlike my mother, sometimes I – as the little autocrat of the house – could be a little bit selective and would invite only kids that I liked. That was why many neighborhood kids tried to impress me. They bribed me with snacks such as corn pancakes, browned rice snack, chestnuts and pine nuts. These days, TV has become more common and the majority of households in North Korea have a TV set.

“Every evening there was a bunch of kids crowding into my house to watch TV and I had to stand by the foyer like a little gatekeeper”

 
However, in North Korea, having a TV does not always mean that you can watch it. Often times, you cannot watch the TV because of the lack of power. Electricity is supplied for only two to three hours per day in North Korea. And even when the power is available, the voltage is often too low, so people get high voltage transformers to boost it. Because of the absurdly low supply of electricity, the voltage of supplied power cannot easily meet the standard voltage of 220 V. When the voltage goes down below 120-130 V, the TV turns itself off. To prevent this, I remember my younger brother always having his hand on the power switch of a voltage transformer so that he could turn it on whenever he saw a sign the voltage going down again. That was our desperate way of watching TV. People who cannot afford a transformer with a capacity large enough to handle this situation cannot watch TV, even if they have one.

In North Korea, under a centrally controlled broadcasting system, there is only one main channel available nationwide on TV, which is the Chosun Central Broadcasting Channel. However, people find it boring because most of the contents on the channel are focused on Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, or something set up to promote their propaganda. Everyone knows it is all set up. Therefore, people want to watch movies by buying DVDs. People usually watch movies made in North Korea, China or Russia. Only few people dare to watch American or South Korean movies. If anyone is caught watching movies from those countries, there are consequences. Whoever watched those forbidden movies would be sent to political prison camps, youth correctional institutions or disciplinary camps. I have a friend whose crime of watching a South Korean movie was traced a year later by the National Security Agency and was sent to a disciplinary camp. My father was very loyal to the North Korean government and never allowed us to watch South Korean movies. I had never watched a single movie from South Korea or America until I left North Korea.

“My father was very loyal to the North Korean government and never allowed us to watch South Korean movies”

 
Like grownups, students in North Korea return home between 7 and 8 in the evening because they have to do “after school activities” after morning classes. Those “activities” are usually collecting recyclable garbage such as paper, glass, rubber or rabbit skin, working at construction fields or assisting with chores in collective farms. After the activities, students hang out with friends outside, do homework and go to bed around 10 at night. In North Korea, people go to bed early around 10 pm because there are many days they do not have power at all or, on other days, they do not know when they will have power. To save lamp oil, my mother urged us to go to bed before 10 o’clock no matter what. This rule was equally applied to my father. He also had to quit reading newspaper and go to sleep.

However, it was not always like that. On special occasions, for example, when the kids did well on a test or there was any other good news to celebrate, our family did not go to bed that early. On such nights, our family split into two teams, sat around and played a card game called “Joopae.” We put a small bet on the game, so whoever lost had to take over household chores like cooking or cleaning up the backyard. Sometimes on sleepless nights, all of our family members would lie down side by side and play a word relay or sang songs. There are not many houses that have more than one bedroom in North Korea, so it is very common for all family members to sleep in one room together. When my younger sister, a tone-deaf singer, set the mood by singing seriously but with lyrics that were all wrong, we all ended up laughing aloud. Now I am in South Korea my sister and I sometimes go to karaoke. It is funny that my sister’s lousy singing sounds way better with the help of the instrumental background of karaoke, but I still miss the old days when we burst out laughing together at her singing in the dark. I remember, back then, whenever any of us fell asleep, the game or the singing finished up naturally, and we all went to sleep.

In North Korea, people work for six days and only Sundays are official days off. Even on Sundays, some people have to participate in collective labor such as road pavement, cleaning up streets or farming, depending on situation of their belonging organizations. Many people in North Korea consider weekends time to work, just like other days, but only on individual tasks such as laundry, cleaning the house or gardening. Of course, there are some wealthy people who enjoy their pastimes. Some of them go fishing on a riverside and others watch movies with their DVD players. However, DVD players are not yet commonly distributed in North Korea. Only about half of the families in our neighborhood had DVD players. Going on a picnic is not a very common pastime, either. In North Korea, only wealthy families go on a picnic with their families and relatives. I never went on a picnic when I stayed in North Korea.

“When I first came to South Korea, a two-day weekend felt too long and boring to me”

 
When I first came to South Korea, a two-day weekend felt too long and boring to me. In hindsight, I think it was only natural for me to feel that way because I had never learned how to enjoy free time and didn’t know what to do with the extra time. Now I have spent a couple of years in South Korea trying to catch up with the rapid pace of life here. Sometimes, a weekend feels more hectic than weekdays. I go to movies, meet up with friends downtown, grab lunch with them and go shopping. I also have to spare time to spend with my family and, of course, to study.

Now I know that even a two-day weekend is actually too short.


Got A Question?

Mina grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Editing and translation by Ashley Cho

Artwork by Catherine Salkeld

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About the Author

Mina Yoon

Mina is an "Ask a North Korean" contributor. She is in her early 20s and left the north-east of North Korea in 2010. She can be reached at [email protected]

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