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North Korea punishes unwed couples who are living together

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
May 08, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is sending unwed couples who are living together to serve time in labor camps, saying they are poisoning the country’s socialist society, sources there told Radio Free Asia.

“If the couples were living in a common-law marriage for less than one year, the punishment will be three months imprisonment in a labor training camp,” a source from Chongju, in the northwestern province of North Pyongan, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“If it exceeds three years, they will spend at least two years in the labor camp,” the source said.

Unwed couples, or those who didn’t register their marriages with authorities, fall under the umbrella term “8.3 couples,” a slang term that refers to any couple that for some reason lacks legitimacy. 

The term gets its name from a government directive issued back on August 3, 1984, that encouraged factories to earn extra money beyond their state-set profit quotas by reusing waste materials.  It can also refer to people having extramarital affairs.

The crackdown on 8.3 couples is part of a larger effort by the government to eliminate “capitalist” or “anti-socialist” culture from infiltrating society, with increasingly harsh consequences for activities that the government deems to be unbecoming of a loyal citizen.

The government announced it would start to investigate common-law marriages on February 22, when the Ministry of Social Security listed the practice among other anti-party and counter revolutionary social crimes, the North Pyongan resident said.

The list also included robbery, rape, child abduction, violence against Party or government officials and their families, writing anonymous complaint letters, and graffiti, and said the crimes would be “mercilessly punished,” she said.

“Immediately after they announced the proclamation, judicial authorities took measures for residents to voluntarily surrender who had committed the many different crimes which threaten the socialist system,” the source said. “Couples in common-law marriages, whose marriages are not legally registered, were told to surrender within one month.”

Neighborhood watch units

Most people in common-law marriages, however, have not surrendered, she said. 

“As a result, the judicial authorities have been directly investigating 8.3 couples since the beginning of April.” 

Neighborhood watch unit leaders in the city of Tokchon visited each household in their jurisdiction to figure out which residents were living in common-law marriages, another source in South Pyongan province, North of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“[They] went house to house to confirm each couple’s citizenship cards in the beginning of April and prepared a list of all the common-law couples who did not register their marriages,” he said. “They will hand that list over to the Ministry of Safety and Security.”

The source said common-law marriages are more common in the cities and vary from region to region..

“I live in the Hungdok neighborhood, and there are 25 households in my watch unit. Of these, four were listed as 8.3 couples,” he said. “The larger the city, the more cases are being discovered.”

Common-law marriages saw a rapid increase following the 1994-1998 famine, as women began to find that being legally bound to a man was a hindrance rather than an asset, according to a North Korean escapee who left in 2017 and resettled in the South, and identified himself to RFA by the pseudonym Kim Chang-jin.  

Because of the collapse of the national rationing system, most women had to leave the home to run businesses to support their families, leading them to greater independence from men, thereby giving them less incentive to get legally married.  

Yoon Bo Young, a researcher at Dongguk University in Seoul, told RFA that 8.3 couples started becoming more common because of North Korea’s patriarchal culture, which is disadvantageous to women in legal marriages.

“In North Korea, the state interferes with many facets of a woman’s life including by issuing instructions on how women should style their hair and how they should wear their clothes,” she said. 

“It is difficult for residents to live and to eat. When the entire nation suffers, that misery is not shared by the entire population, but it is exceptionally harsher on the weak and the women. This is why there is an increase of 8.3 couples.”

She said that during tough times, the men can take out their anger on their wives, but married women have nowhere to go find relief. North Korean authorities tend to ignore domestic violence cases between a legally married husband and wife, but if a couple is not legally married, the abuser is usually punished.

Yoon said  that North Korea’s strong demands for socialist moral norms and ethics is driving the increase in the level of punishment against social problems, but she said that North Korea’s social order cannot be stabilized if the residents’ lives are not stabilized first.