By Rose Kwak
It is hard to picture what North Koreans do for fun in a country notoriously known for human rights violations against its people, where seventy percent of the population is food insecure and its people are constantly indoctrinated by the state. However, despite many bleak and dark images surrounding North Korea, many North Koreans enjoy various forms of entertainment—ranging from taking families to dolphiariums in Pyongyang to inviting friends over for karaoke.
Behind closed doors, many North Koreans also take pleasure in watching South Korean dramas and movies, which is prohibited by the state but easily accessible through video recorders and CDs in black markets. While recreational activities and access to these entertainment venues is largely dependent on socio-economic class and regions, South Korean media is consumed by North Koreans across a wide range of socio-economic gradients. The following are types of entertainment cultures thus far known in North Korea.
Amusement parks and entertainment venues:
Since Kim Jong-Un came into power, Kim has been working toward “improving the lives of his fellow millennials” and has ordered constructions of various entertainment venues. There are quite a number of other large amusement parks across the city such as Kaeson Youth Park and Manyongdae Fun Fair, to name a few. In a power-starved country where the satellites reveal pitch black images by night, Kaeson Youth Park facilities are lit like “Times Square.” Kaeson Youth Park covers more than 400,000 square meters and holds various rides for families and friends to enjoy. Munsu Water Park is another recreational park for families and it includes about 26 pools. The Mirim Riding Club offers horse-back riding for eight dollars per hour outdoors and ten dollars per hour indoors.
In 2012, Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground was opened to the public by Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju at the opening ceremony. Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground offers exciting and varying options for family entertainment including a dolphinarium, water parks and a mini-golf course. There are also ice-skating rinks and ski resorts for those who could afford. Generally, these amusement parks and grounds are reserved for the ten percent of North Korea’s elites.
Drinking, Dining and Dating Culture:
When it comes down to dating and sex, North Koreans are extremely conservative. Dating is strictly forbidden on university campuses, albeit many young couples find a way to go on dates and to enjoy each other’s company. Outside of campus grounds, many young couples go to restaurants that serve tasty meat or go to jangmadang (markets) to shop for small goods, as well as to visit a nearby mountain trail, river side or beach. While average North Koreans cannot afford luxury items, in recent years, many North Korean couples have started to wear matching tokens or jewelry like the South Korean counterparts. Social clubs are another way in which young women and men meet one another. During holidays, social clubs are hosted for masses and dance parties take place in various places such as Kim Il-Sung Square. Because North Korean men go to military for ten years after high school, most serious romantic relationships develop in the late twenties, often times through blind dates set up through relatives and close friends.
In recent years, there seems to be an increase in demand for restaurants and bars. For average North Koreans, meals usually consist rice and a few side dishes. However, the elite few in Pyongyang tend to revel in lifestyles that poses stark contrast with those of the rest. One journalist reflecting upon this flashy lifestyle explained that this small privileged class known as the “donju”(translated as “masters of money”) are living a cosmopolitan life in “Pyonghattan.” They would spend ten to fifteen euros equivalent per meal to indulge in expensive prime steak or Wiener schnitzel and wear clothes from brands like Zara and H&M.
Another prominent aspect of North Korean recreational life is “eumjugamu.” “Eumjugamu” in Korean is a combined word for “drinking, music, and dancing.” While most North Koreans can’t afford hard liquor like tequila, about eighty to ninety percent of North Korean men drink on daily basis. Average North Koreans drink state-produced alcohol such as Yangdok-sul or Taedonggang beer. Many North Koreans in the countryside brew their own beer with corn or fruits (known as nongtaegi) despite the fact that this is illegal. Unlike their South Korea counterparts, house parties are also fairly common in North Korea. Wealthier elites have karaoke machines to enjoy.
South Korean media consumption:
Consumption of South Korean media is a form of entertainment not just exclusively reserved for the elites. The reason is that many North Koreans are able to obtain video recorders and DVDs illegally through black markets. Especially in Chinese bordering provinces like North Hamgyong, people are able to watch South Korean broadcasts through their television. In other areas, North Koreans are able to obtain South Korean entertainment CDs and DVDs. A defector who lived in Yanggang Province explained that people rent CDs that contain popular South Korean dramas. Many North Koreans also watch South Korean dramas through video recorders that are sold by Chinese merchants or at black markets. Within trusted circles of friends or relatives, many even watch dramas together. The impact of South Korean media consumption is great enough to have affected people’s lingo as North Koreans began to adopt words only used in South Korea.
According to an InterMedia survey of North Korean refugees, approximately 33 percent of North Korean defectors claimed that they had access to and listened to foreign radio. About 47 percent were able to obtain free-tuning radio from the black market and about 23 percent through Chinese merchants. A survey of North Korean defectors revealed that approximately 98 percent of USB owners kept South Korean dramas and/or music. Through “passive dissemination” and “inter-personal distribution,” South Korean TV is becoming rather popular in North Korea.
Kim Jong-un recently launched a North Korean Netflix-style service called Manbang that enables people to re-watch documentaries about their leaders as well as to learn Russian and English. Manbang supposedly offers five channels that show state-sanctioned news and educational programs.
Rose Kwak is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.