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’s question is:
Is it common for North Koreans to keep pets? Does it depend on what part of the country they live in? What are some of the most popular ones?
It’s not common for North Koreans to keep pets. That’s because it costs a lot of money to feed them. Still, there are some people who keep pets.
In Pyongyang, the most commonly found pets include monkeys and dogs. Outside Pyongyang, dogs are the most common. Some keep dogs for their meat and others keep dogs to guard the house when they’re not home. But not everyone – few outside of Pyongyang, in fact – can afford to have companion animals such as monkeys and dogs because they take a lot of effort and money.
In 2000, I had a Maltese in my house and many people in my neighborhood wanted my dog so badly. It was a cute Maltese my grandfather had sent us all the way from Pyongyang. People in my neighborhood always stopped by my house to see him. Many of them would shamelessly blurt out that they wanted my Maltese so bad. My not-so-very-thoughtful parents ended up giving away my Maltese to someone else in my neighborhood. I was so sad to see the dog go but it was my parents’ decision, and there was nothing I could do about it.
While I’ve heard monkeys were popular in Pyongyang, they became less popular later on and there is a story that explains why.
First, you need to remember that North Korea is a so-called socialist state. Therefore, when you pay the bills for utilities, everyone pays an equal amount regardless of how much electricity they used. Moreover, you cannot use the electricity whenever you want to. If you end up using electricity without the government’s permission, you are subject to a big fine. So it’s even illegal to use a microwave or make rice in the rice cooker in the North.
This doesn’t sound realistic to you, does it? North Koreans still need to use a microwave and a rice cooker to feed themselves! So, people secretly use those things to cook food. Public servants stop by random houses in order to catch them. If you get caught using microwave, you get fined, so people like to keep them deep inside their bunker.
This is important to remember because of what happened one time in Pyongyang. One day, a public servant stopped by to inspect a house where they had a monkey. The family took some time trying to hide the microwave above the closet before opening the door for the public servant. This public servant was very suspicious about the time it took, and demanded that they come clean and admit that they had used a microwave. The family didn’t back off, but just then their pet monkey, who had been observing this situation, climbed up to the closet, grabbed the microwave, and put it down in front of the public servant.
… monkeys were smarter than people expected and people began to get into trouble because of their pet monkeys
I don’t know if there will be those out there who think this isn’t a big deal. But in North Korea, everything must be done to serve the Dear Leader and the state. Every act that is done for the individual alone is illegal. But North Koreans are people just like us and it isn’t possible for people to live without doing things that aren’t designed to serve the Dear Leader.
So almost every family has secrets – things they do that are perfectly legal in democratic societies but illegal in North Korea. In this case – and others – monkeys were smarter than people expected and people began to get into trouble because of their pet monkeys. As a result, people’s interest in monkeys declined. Instead, people turned to dogs and piglets for pets.
BUN-KAE IS MY SHEPHERD
In regions outside Pyongyang, people keep shepherd dogs for pets instead of small dogs such as a Maltese or Shih Tzu. North Koreans feed raw fish or pork to their shepherds, which is easier than buying food just for the dog. Moreover, North Koreans preferred shepherds because they were smarter. Other dogs such as Maltese and Shih Tzu would eat food given to them by other people. But shepherds would eat nothing but the food given by their owners. Of course, shepherds need to be trained before obeying their owners that way, but this still was the main reason shepherds were so popular among North Koreans. I always felt that shepherds were like a friend to people while small dogs like Maltese were little babies who act cutesy to attract attention from people.
We had a shepherd while living in North Korea. We named him Bun-kae, which means “thunderbolt” in Korean. After my mother got scammed in 2005 my family went through financial difficulties, so my mom sold our shepherd for money. Bun-kae was about 3 years old at that time. Because he was so well-behaved we made a lot of money off of selling him. However, three days later, Bun-kae escaped from his new home and found his way back to our house! My mom was so touched that Bun-kae found his way back home that she wanted to take him back. But because there is a saying – “It brings bad luck when an animal which left your house comes back” – my family ended up returning Bun-kae to his new home. Later, we brought another dog to our home but I could never like him as much as I liked Bun-kae.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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