Family Life

North Korea Table of Contents

The family is regarded by North Korean authorities as a "cell," or basic unit of society, but not an economic entity. A person participates in production in a cooperative, factory, or office and individually earns "work points." Although on a socialist cooperative payment for work points earned by family members goes to the family unit as a whole, the family head--the father or the grandfather--no longer manages and organizes the family's economic life.

Both in urban areas and in socialist cooperatives, family size tends to be small--between four and five people and usually no more than two generations, as opposed to the three generations or more found in the traditional "big house." Parents often live with their youngest, rather than oldest, son and his wife. Observers discovered, however, that sons are still more desired than daughters for economic reasons and for continuing the family name. The eldest son's wedding is a lavish affair compared with those of his brothers. But the traditionally oppressive relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law common to East Asian countries seems to have been fundamentally transformed. A South Korean source reported that an overly demanding mother-in-law might be criticized by a local branch of women's organizations such as the Korean Democratic Women's Union.

A Korean-American scholar learned in discussions with North Korean officials in the early 1980s that a wife's inability to bear a son still gives a husband grounds for divorce. If a man desires a divorce, he has to obtain his wife's permission. A woman, however, is able to divorce without her husband's consent. A South Korean source reported the opposite--that it is easier for a husband to obtain a divorce than it is for a wife. Divorce from those branded "reactionaries," or "bad elements," is granted rather easily in the case of either gender and in fact often is strongly encouraged by the authorities. In general, the authorities seem to discourage divorce with the exceptions noted above. Eberstadt and Banister, using statistics provided by the Central Statistics Bureau, indicate that the number of divorces granted annually between 1949 and 1987 ranged between 3,000 and 5,000 (a low of 3,021 in 1965 and a high of 4,763 in 1949).

The legal age for males to marry is eighteen years; for females, seventeen years. Marrying in one's late twenties or early thirties is common because of work and military service obligations; late marriage also affects fertility rates. Most marriages seem to be between people in the same rural cooperative or urban enterprise. Traditional arranged marriages have by and large disappeared, in favor of "love matches"; nevertheless, children still seem to seek their parents' permission before getting married. The taking of secondary wives, a common practice in traditional times, is prohibited.

Wedding ceremonies are much simpler and less costly than in traditional times. However, they still contain such practices as meetings between families of the bride and groom, gift exchanges, formal letters of proposal, and wedding feasts. Among farming families, weddings usually take place after the fall harvest and before the spring plowing; this is when families have the most resources to invest and the bride can bring her yearly income from work points to her new household.

In 1946 the North Korean regime confiscated the remaining lineage land, and the elaborate ceremonies of the past lost their economic base. Since that time, the traditional ceremonies surrounding death and veneration of the ancestors have been simplified. The remains are no longer carried in a special carriage, but, in rural areas, in a cart or tractor. One Korean source reported that at the funeral of his grandmother in North Korea incense was offered in front of a photograph of the deceased; the source also said that the ceremony generally retains the outlines of the traditional rites. Relatives and neighbors apparently still donate some money to the family of the deceased. Some "revolutionary" content has been added to funeral practices. One traditional chant has been rewritten to include the phrase "though this body is deceased, the spirit of the revolution still lives." Widowers frequently remarry, but widows rarely do.

Gravesites are still preserved and remain a common feature of the North Korean landscape. According to one observer, if construction projects necessitate disturbing graves, relatives are notified beforehand, and graves are carefully relocated. If no relative claims the graves, they are still relocated elsewhere. The custom of visiting graves at certain times of the year apparently continues, even though large kinship groups cannot meet--not because the state has prohibited it, but because the groups are scattered across the country and travel restrictions make it difficult for them to get together.

In households in which both parents work and no grandparents live nearby, infants over three months usually are placed in a t'agaso (nursery). They remain in these nurseries until they are four years old. Although t'agaso are not part of the compulsory education system, most families find them indispensable. In the early 1970s, North Korean statistics counted 8,600 t'agaso. The nurseries not only free women from child care but also provide infants and small children with the foundations of a thorough ideological and political education. A South Korean source reported that when meals are given to the infants, they are expected to give thanks to a portrait of "Father Kim Il Sung."

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress