Like most people who have some experiences with both North and South Korea, I cannot help but occasionally wonder at the similarities between the policies adopted by these two arch-rivals on particular questions. Actually, this is hardly surprising: both Korean states developed from the same cultural and social background, and both single-mindedly pursued a goal of high-speed development (with dramatically different results, however). Thus, when facing the same problems, Pyongyang and Seoul came up with similar solutions ? at least, sometimes.
From the 1960s, the South Korean government was waging a war against ‘excessive’ spending on family rituals. The expensive wedding banquets wasted money which would otherwise be saved and invested in industrial programs! Thus, the Seoul government introduced special laws which were to make weddings cheaper.
In the North, the lavish weddings ? so usual for old Korea ? also came under suspicion around the same time. In addition to their wastefulness, they were seen as politically subversive. In the 1960s, wedding banquets were described as a breeding ground for factionalism (read: informal connections between people) and, for some reason, dogmatism (this term normally hinted at Soviet traditions, but in this particular case it obviously stood as a general indicator of everything bad). The situation changed only in the 1980s, when the Pyongyang authorities decided to rely on the nationalist spirit even more heavily – and began to promote the ‘good traditional customs’. Incidentally, around the same time the South also began to soften its approach to ‘wasteful traditions’.
However, the weddings were indeed expensive. According to tradition, the groom’s family had to take care of accommodation while the bride’s relatives had to provide the furniture and household items. Nowadays, most people live in houses belonging to the state and are rented for a rather symbolic amount of money (even after recent reforms, the rent remains low by the standards of most other countries). Thus, the major burden falls on the bride’s family, which begins to prepare for the daughter’s wedding when the girl is still in her early teens.
More prosperous families provide the furniture and other household items, like some of the ‘seven devices’ ? signs of the utmost prosperity in the North (the list of these devices includes TV set, fridge, tape-recorder, washing machine, fan, camera and sewing machine). However, in most cases, the bride’s family must limit themselves to kitchen utensils, blankets and a wooden blanket case.
In the modest interior of most North Korean houses, blankets are essential for comfort and decoration. A popular joke states that guests go to weddings to look at the blankets rather than to look at the bride!
As a rule, the bride’s family provides the groom with his wedding suit, and the groom’s family, in turn, provides the dress for the bride ? not a small expense in the North.
Guests are also expected to provide monetary gifts. Roughly 10-15 percent of an average monthly salary is seen as a sufficient contribution, with close friends and relatives donating a greater amount. In South Korean terms, the equivalent sum would be 150-200,000 won, much more than most Southern families donate when they go to weddings.
In the past, a wedding was a sufficient reason to apply for additional rations ? especially those of liquor and rice. However, the recent crisis has changed the situation. In the 1990s, the authorities resumed the campaign for moderate weddings ? and, among other things, prescribed that weddings must not use more than 5 kg of rice. Even if one takes in consideration that North Korean weddings tend to be smaller than their South Korean counterparts (30-40 guests appear to be the common norm), these limits put the hosts under considerable strain.
However, these days, the North Korean state is increasingly powerless and unable to enforce regulations with their old, brutal efficiency. Thus, rich families do not care much about these limitations. Meanwhile, the poor majority has to be frugal anyway: market prices are exorbitant. Indeed, North Korea is becoming a society where money ? not connections or ‘social origin’ ? determines one’s social standing.