“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume. Knowing the customs of a country is, in effect, a guide to understanding the soul of that country and its people. The following Sidebar is intended to provide a glimpse into the unique world of this nation’s customs: how people marry, how families celebrate holidays and other occasions, what people eat, and how they socialize and have fun.
Marriage and Family
Marriages occur only with parental consent, and parents may arrange marriages for their children. The government has established minimum marriage ages (27 for men, 25 for women) to allow for the completion of military service and other obligations. Both parents usually work. Day care, usually at workplaces, is free.
Under Kim Il Sung the government preached the message “Love your family, love your state,” but obligations have been continually extended outward to embrace the larger society. The government sought to weaken the traditional extended family and clan system and promote the personality cult of the “Great Leader,” whom young children were taught to refer to as “Father Kim Il Sung.”
Korean food is generally spicy. Kimch’i (a spicy pickled cabbage) and rice are the mainstays of the diet around which most other dishes revolve. Meals usually consist of a number of spicy vegetables, soup, fish, and kimch’i. Because North Korean families are not as affluent, traditional Korean delicacies such as pulkogi (marinated beef) and kalbi (marinated short ribs) have not been as common as in South Korea. A favorite food in North Korea is naengmyon, a cold noodle dish. The consumption of soybeans and maize is high, as is that of millet and wheat. The North Koreans’ traditional diet has been limited drastically, however, as the country has recently faced a serious food crisis. Despite international aid, food shortages have continued to worsen, resulting in widespread malnutrition and starvation.
Families rarely have time to eat daily meals together. Parents often leave early in the morning and return late at night. They commonly eat their meals at workplace cafeterias. Koreans consider eating while walking on the street ill-mannered and offensive, something only a child is allowed to do. Except during lengthy dinner parties, conversation during meals is limited. Eating with the fingers is considered impolite, but slurping soup and noodles is accepted. Spoons are usually used for soup, and chopsticks for everything else.
Most Korean workers almost never eat in restaurants, which are difficult to get into and very expensive. Tipping is not allowed.
Greetings and introductions tend to be formal. Handshakes are common among men, but a bow is more usual. A younger or lower-status person always bows until the other offers a handshake or returns the bow. When Korean men shake hands, the right hand is extended, often supported at the wrist by the left hand to show deference, and the head is slightly bowed. When women meet, they usually extend both arms and grasp each other’s hands. Children always bow to adults, and wave or bow to other children.
Several phrases are used in greeting another person, but the most common is Anyonghaseyo? (literally, “Are you at peace?”), which is the equivalent of “How are you?” The Korean language has different levels of formality, so this and any other greeting will differ depending on the people involved. For example, Anyong? is used with children, while Anyonghashimnikka? is used for superiors. All mean the same thing, but the different endings indicate levels of respect. When greeting superiors, it is common to ask about their health and parents. When greeting subordinates, the questions are about their spouses and children.
Men who are friends may hold hands in public or walk down the street with one friend’s arm slung over the other’s shoulder. This is an expression of friendship. Touching between strangers or casual acquaintances, however—especially between members of the opposite sex—is considered inappropriate. In most situations, people maintain good posture to show respect for their host or for a speaker; to sit in a relaxed manner is considered an insult. One never looks a superior directly in the eye.
North Koreans normally do not visit one another unannounced, and arranged social visits are infrequent. Generally, people visit relatives for the lunar New Year or Parents’ Day, but not so often otherwise. Unless special business calls for it, a superior never visits a subordinate.
It is considered polite and a sign of respect for guests to bring a gift to the hosts. The value of the gift is far less important than the gesture of giving. Gifts are exchanged with both hands. In most cases, a gift will be fruit, a beverage, or something from one’s home region. Guests remove their shoes and hats indoors. In some cases, slippers are provided. Otherwise, people wear socks in the home. Showing respect for the family and state are of utmost importance for most visits. Visitors are given the best the household has to offer. If there are many guests, age or status is used to determine who gets the best seat, the best cut of meat, the largest drink, and so forth.
Sports are actively encouraged by the government, and sports facilities are plentiful. Soccer is the national sport, and many Koreans also play table tennis. Films, plays, and operas, often with strong political messages, are well attended. Family outings and picnics to North Korea’s many parks and cultural and historical sites are common activities on Sunday, which is the workers’ day of rest. Television is also popular and widely available. North Koreans are accomplished in all traditional Korean art forms. Performances are polished, and form is pursued over spontaneity or individuality.
Holidays and Celebrations
In addition to national holidays, there are many commemoration days that can be declared a holiday if local authorities are satisfied that production will not be disrupted. The government has discontinued traditional Korean seasonal festivals. Official holidays include the birthdays of late leader Kim Il Sung (15 April) and his son and successor Kim Jong Il (16 February), as well as May Day (1 May), Liberation Day (15 August), Independence Day (9 September), Workers’ Party Day (10 October), Constitution Day (27 December), and International New Year’s Day (1 January).
Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas