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Love and Marriage in North Korea

NEW YORK – Imagine North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a tuxedo, waiting nervously at the altar (or shrine) of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il. He beholds his future wife’s face, anticipating his chance to kiss the bride. Of course, such an event can only be imagined in today’s North Korea. In the photographs presented to the world of the newly public couple, they stand chastely, but contentedly, next to each other but at an appropriate distance, or she follows a few steps behind.

While observers of North Korean affairs seem both tickled and stumped by Kim Jong-un’s marriage, and the accompanying media snippets, this “new development” is not startling. It implies nothing about the young leader’s attitudes toward, say, political and economic reform; nor does it signify an effort to appeal to younger citizens for support. Instead, the true meaning of Kim’s marriage can be found in Korean tradition and dynastic practices.

For Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel, marriage has long been a staple of social life. The Population Reference Bureau reports that in 2008, only 25% of North Korean women aged 25-29 – and a mere 4% of women aged 30-34 – had never been married. Among the Pyongyang elite, marriage is de rigueur, with 80% of the city’s adult residents registered as married. Indeed, a Korean must be married with children to be considered a true adult – and that is no less true for North Korea’s First Couple.

According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh Sinmun, the average North Korean man marries at age 29, and the average woman at 25.5. Thus, Kim Jong-un, who is purportedly 28 years old, got to the altar right on time.