While on the surface North Korea still sometimes seems a living fossil of a bygone era, this is a deeply misleading impression. A lot of things have changed in the DPRK recently, and wedding culture is no exception.
In North Korea it is still universally believed that marriage is an inevitable and indispensable stage of every person’s life. This very traditional view is bound to change eventually, but it remains true that that nearly all North Koreans are certain: everybody should marry at the proper age.
Under Kim Il Sung, modest celebrations were considered ideal. In recent years, however, as Kim Jong Un’s economic policy has begun to give tangible results, lush weddings have become a commonplace in Pyongyang and other major cities among the emerging middle class, officials, and “new rich” business families.
Like wealthy people across the globe, they see a large and expensive wedding as a sure way to demonstrate their earthly success.
The first stage is the engagement ceremony, which is held months prior to the wedding itself. In some cases more than a year elapses between engagement and wedding. Engagement is taken seriously, and breaking it is considered to be a big deal.
Lush weddings have become commonplace in Pyongyang
It is often tacitly assumed that after the formal engagement it is permissible for a couple to engage in sex, even though in general North Korean tend to be far less permissive towards the premarital sex than Southerners (attitudes are getting more liberal, though).
The last two decades have seen affluent North Koreans begin to emulate what they have learned about the South Korean style of weddings. This is yet another manifestation of the quiet and unrecognized, but significant, spread of South Korean culture in the North.
Northerners, in spite of all the prohibitions, have spent the last two decades secretly but enthusiastically watching smuggled South Korean TV serials, movies, and sometimes even live TV broadcasts, and this experience is beginning to show.
This quiet emulation of the “imaginary South” shows that for a significant number of North Koreans, the South is now a land of sophistication and prosperity (and also a forbidden fruit).
As in the South, wedding rituals these days are largely about taking professional-looking pictures and/or shooting videos. In a sense, the wedding has turned into a performance that is played out in front of the camera and, largely, for the camera.
In the morning, the bride and groom put on their formal wedding attire. In the early 2000s, Western-style bridal attire, a white gown with a veil, grew in popularity, but soon this fashion was banned, since it was seen by the authorities as too non-Korean.
Now brides are wearing some variation of the traditional Korean women’s attire, known in the South as “hanbok” (the term is never used in the North). Grooms at the wedding appear in the Western suits.
As in the South, wedding rituals these days are largely about taking professional-looking pictures
An affluent North Korean bride is expected to spend first few hours putting heavy make-up, often assisted by professional make-up artists. Their service costs 100-200 dollars, a large amount of money in Pyongyang where the average salary is around 60-70 dollars.
After all preparations are made, the groom arrives at the bride’s home in a rented car and the couple depart for a trip to Pyongyang’s most scenic spots.
Their first destination is usually a statue of a Kim. In most cases, the couple go to the double statue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansudae Hill in the very center of Pyongyang. There the couple performs a deep bow, profess their eternal loyalty to the eternal leaders, and lay flowers at the foot of the statue (a scene often witnessed by the foreign visitors of the North Korean capital).
Then, accompanied by a photographer or, more often nowadays, a video operator, the newlyweds travel by car around the city, visiting a number of scenic spots on order to take pictures and capture video. The footage will be eventually used to make a film about the wedding, and the normal cost of a “video service” is said to range from 100 to 300 dollars.
Having finished the video performance, the newlyweds arrive at the wedding hall or banquet hall at a restaurant where the wedding celebrations will take place. Specialized wedding halls began to proliferate in the early 2000s, and under Kim Jong Un they have become a growth industry across the country.
It seems that poorer folks still largely celebrate their humble weddings at home, but for the sophisticated and rich, the wedding hall and banquet celebration is the norm nowadays.
Upon arrival, the couple is greeted by nicely dressed children who present flowers to them, and then a congratulatory song is played.
This part of the wedding ritual is now dominated by a master of ceremony, called “churye.” The emergence of the “churye” is, obviously, a Southern influence and an innovation, though in earlier days some official or other respected person would drop to a wedding to deliver a short congratulation to the newlyweds. Nowadays, the “churye” plays a major role in the entire ceremony – among the more affluent families, of course.
For the sophisticated and rich, the wedding hall and banquet celebration is the norm
In recent years, wealthy Pyongyang families have begun to invite a famous artist – an activity which provides some North Korean celebrities with a nice additional income, since a famous churye can charge hundreds of dollars for his appearance.
The churye then makes a short speech, which contains warm words about the newlyweds, their parents and, occasionally, some respected guests present. Tributes to the Leaders and patriotic statements are often included into the speech as well, but the major message is, predictably, wishes for the happiness and harmony of the couple’s future life.
In addition to the churye, a group of artists and musicians is usually also invited to rich peoples’ weddings. The group is called the “atmospheric group” and, as its name implies, their task is to create a festive atmosphere.
After the churye finishes their speech, the formal part is over, so guests switch their attention to the numerous dishes which are waiting on the table. Depending on how posh the banquet hall is, the cost of a wedding varies from 5 to 15 dollars per guest.
The most expensive banquet hall, located inside the Koryo Hotel, now charges $20 per person. This is a lot of money, but the food in the Koryo is indeed delicious, as this author himself recently had the opportunity to learn.
Guests then not only eat, but sing and dance for few hours. The “atmospheric group”, often consisting of professional artists, does it best to “warm up” the audience and maintain the appropriate vibe.
At the wedding, it is customary and, indeed, obligatory, to present gifts.
In the past, following the Russian/Soviet tradition, wedding gifts were presented in kind, since it has always been seen as hopelessly vulgar to give money as present.
However, recently the monetary gifts are increasingly common in North Korea, as it has long been the case in the South. It is customary that the guest donates an amount that at least exceeds the per capita cost of the banquet – usually, equivalent of 10-30 dollars.
Weddings in Pyongyang increasingly reflect the changes that are taking place in the country: consumerism and inequality are on the rise, but so are relaxation and desire to have a good time for the sake of it.
The rich get richer, the poor get less poor (albeit more slowly), and all try to have merrier lives.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
While on the surface North Korea still sometimes seems a living fossil of a bygone era, this is a deeply misleading impression. A lot of things have changed in the DPRK recently, and wedding culture is no exception.In North Korea it is still universally believed that marriage is an inevitable and indispensable stage of every person’s life. This very traditional view is bound to change
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.