Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Today’s question is: Do you have public saunas in North Korea, too?
Of course we have public saunas in North Korea.
I don’t know what it would’ve been like in the seventies. But I know for sure that it became popular from the early 2000’s when I was growing up there. If you have been to a Jimjilbang in South Korea, you would know that they are equipped with a wide variety of rooms, ranging from hot rooms, salt rooms, sleeping rooms, and a canteen.
You cannot find this variety in North Korean public saunas. There are only two types of rooms in North Korean public saunas: one is a hot bath rub and the other is a heated room. You go into the heated room first. When you get sweaty, you jump into a large tub filled with hot water.
People like to sit in the heated room in the winter more often than in the summer. But it is costly to keep the water warm during business hours in the heated room. For that reason, some sauna facilities provide cold water after you come out of the heated room.
It’s a nightmare for people suffering from respiratory diseases to take a shower in cold water after coming out of a heated room. For people with heart disease, it isn’t suitable or recommended to sit in a heated room. But some saunas manage to provide hot water throughout the winter, thankfully.
Some North Koreans own public saunas to make money, and some restaurant owners run sauna businesses as a side job after obtaining the permission from the government.
It is far easier for them to run a sauna business, since they have obtained a proper permission from the state and can keep the water warm at a lower cost – they have access to electricity provided by the government.
For those who run a sauna business without receiving the government’s permission, it is way more costly to run the business as they have to boil water using firewood. But such private saunas are way prettier and often more popular with customers. Owners of such private saunas feel the need to invest in their facilities in order to attract more customers.
On the other hand, saunas with proper permission from the government don’t feel the need to make any investments since they have to shut down the business as soon as they’re told to do so by the government – it would be a waste of time!
If you’ve been to a public sauna in South Korea, you might be familiar with the person who gets paid to scrub your body. The idea of paying someone to scrub your body is still foreign to many North Koreans. It already costs a large amount of money to get into the public sauna – it would cost even more to pay someone to scrub your body!
Hence, most North Koreans don’t even think about paying someone else to scrub their body unless they’re wealthy. Also, many go to the sauna with a group of close friends. They scrub each other’s backs. I heard that you can pay someone to scrub your body when I was in North Korea, but I never had access to such a luxury.
North Koreans choose to go to public saunas for two main reasons. Some people go there purely to take a long, hot bath. But many of them go to saunas in order to stay in shape and lose some weight. In the past, chubby people with beer bellies were considered to be attractive, but beauty standards have changed dramatically over time.
Now, people want to lose weight and everyone wants to be skinny. People began to frequent public saunas because they believed that it would help them lose weight, but I’ve never seen or heard of anyone who succeeded in losing weight from doing this. In my junior year in high school, I decide to go on a diet and paid a visit to the public sauna every other day.
I gave up within a week. It was suffocating to sit in that small heated room for hours. I didn’t go back to the sauna for a while after that.
I once had a chance to travel to a different town, quite by chance. The sauna facility there was very different from what I was used to in my hometown. It was a three or four story building, equipped with a sauna, a massage parlor, a swimming pool, restaurants and billiards. There was even a bar where people could sit down and drink a variety of liquor, including draft beer. I had never seen such a luxurious sauna in my life.
I was still a young girl back then. I thought to myself ‘I wish I could move the entire building to my neighborhood!’
Not everyone goes to sauna all the time. After all, it costs money to get into the sauna. Most North Koreans take a bath at home – they often go to saunas because they have no choice when the pipes get frozen during winter.
A few years ago, a new item imported from China became a popular item among North Koreans. It is a bag which you hang on the ceiling and, when you fill the bath tub with hot water, the bag keeps the hot steam from leaving the bathroom. It feels just like sitting in the heated room of a sauna.
It is more hygienic to take a bath in your house than to go to the public sauna. Once you buy one of those bags called ‘Mokyok jumoni (Bag for bath)’ it lasts for years. With this bag, you can adjust the temperature. It is much more comfortable than having to sit in the suffocating heated room of the sauna.
Things may have changed a bit since I left North Korea but that’s how things were done, and that’s the sauna culture I experienced when I was living in North Korea.
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Featured image by Adam Westerman
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