North Korea

Culture Name

North Korean

Alternative Name

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea


Identification. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, usually known as North Korea, is a state that occupies the northern half of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is a new state, founded in 1948 as a result of the postcolonial settlement handed down by the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). The United States and the USSR replaced the Japanese in 1945 and divided the peninsula into the American south and the Soviet north. For much of its short history, North Korea was regarded as a Soviet satellite state. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, North Korea's unique socialism has stood out in the post-Cold War world.

Little is known about North Korea in the United States, or in the world for that matter; except for the rare but striking news story about its international terrorism, the nuclear arms threat, and the devastating famine of recent years, nothing substantial is known about North Korea. This is due to the nation's strict closed-country policy: not many outsiders have visited there and not many North Koreans have traveled to the outside world.

Widely regarded as one of the few Stalinist regimes persisting into the post-Cold War era, North Korea—along with its culture, history, and society, and the daily lives of its residents—is hidden behind iron curtains. So little is known about North Korea that the country is often demonized in the Western media. This is in a stark contrast to South Korea, from which millions have emigrated to the United States, forming a substantial Korean American population. South Korea and North Korea share a half-century history of confrontation and antagonism, often involving bloodshed, as manifested in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Nevertheless, South and North Korea stem from one nation.

Location and Geography. North Korea shares borders with China and Russia to the north and the military demarcation line with South Korea in the south. The total area measures 46,540 square miles (120,540 square kilometers), with land boundaries of 1,037 miles (1,673 kilometers), and a coastline of 1,547 miles (2,495 kilometers). It is divided into 14 percent arable land, 2 percent permanent cropland, and 61 percent forest- and woodland. The country's terrain is mostly covered with hills and mountains. The highest point is Mount Paektu, which rises to 9,003 feet (2,744 meters).

North Korea's capital is P'yongyang. At the founding of North Korea in 1948, it was the only city located in the northern half of the peninsula that had a notable historical heritage going back to the premodern era. Kaesong, which once was an ancient capital of the Koryo kingdom (935–1392), located in the middle of the peninsula, became incorporated into North Korean territory only after the 1953 truce agreement that ended the Korean War. Kaesong, P'yongyang, and Namp'o, a new industrial city, are special cities with independent juridical authorities. The rest of the country is divided into nine provinces.

Demography. As of July 1998, North Korea's population was 21,234,387, with a sex ratio from birth to the age 15 of 1.05 males per female; 15–64 years, 0.96 males per female; and 65 years and over, 0.44 males per female. The infant mortality rate stood at 87.83 deaths per thousand live births. The life expectancy was 48.88 years for males and 53.88 years for females. The total fertility rate measured 1.6 children born per woman, although the population growth rate was -0.03 percent, likely because of the high infant mortality rate. The population is more or less homogeneously Korean, with a small Chinese community in the north and a few hundred

North Korea
North Korea
Japanese who are mainly wives of the Korean and repatriated with their husbands after the war.

Linguistic Affiliation. Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters.

Traditionally, the Korean language operated on a dual system: in premodern Korea, oral language was indigenous Korean, but the script was classical Chinese. The syntax of the Chinese and Korean languages are distinct and for those who did not have access to formal education, the world of writing was remote and unknowable. In 1444, under the initiative of King Sejong of Yi dynasty Korea, court scholars invented a Korean script named hunminjongum ("the correct sound to be taught the commoners"). The original set consisted of seventeen consonants and eleven vowels. The script represented the phonetic sounds of Korean; using the script, therefore, one could write the language that people actually spoke. The advantage of using this script instead of the classical Chinese was obvious: the former corresponded to the oral utterance of Korean, helping those in lower strata and women express themselves in writing; the latter, consisting of thousands of ideographs which expressed meaning, was monopolized by the highly–ranked in the social strata. For example, the bureaucrats' qualification examinations and court documentation were all in classical Chinese, while popular stories were written in Korean script.

With more reforms over many centuries, the Korean of the late nineteenth century had developed more vowels and consonants. North Korea inherited this modern form of Korean vernacular script consisting of nineteen consonants and twenty-one vowels. The abolition of the use of Chinese characters from all public printing and writing helped achieved nationwide literacy at a remarkable speed. By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.

Symbolism. The national symbols, such as the national emblem and flag, were all created in 1948 or thereafter. The North Korean flag consists of three colors: red, blue, and white. The top and bottom edges of the flag are thin blue stripes, paralleled by thinner white stripes, leaving the large middle field red. Toward the left, there is a white disk with a red five-pointed star. There is a national anthem, the Aegukka ("the song of patriotism"), but due to the worship of the longtime national leader, songs that praise Kim Il Sung have more or less replaced the anthem. With the rise of Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, to public office, two songs, each praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, began to be sung in public meetings.

North Koreans are strongly loyal to Kim Il Sung's family, and often refer to North Korea as "one big revolutionary family" with Kim Il Sung as household head. With Kim Il Sung's death in July 1994, his son Kim Jong Il is widely seen as the successor, although he has not yet assumed the presidency. On public occasions, every individual in North Korea wears a Kim Il Sung badge on the upper left side of the chest as a proof of loyalty; this practice continues even after Kim Il Sung's death. The type of badge one wears reflects one's status. It is almost impossible to see a North Korean not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge. The badge has become an important national symbol.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Korea's unified history dates at least from the kingdom of Silla (c.670–935), which unified the peninsula in the seventh century C.E. The Buddhist-influenced kingdom of Koryo (935–1392) followed. (The English name "Korea" comes from "Koryo.") The Yi dynasty (1392–1910) adopted Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology and established a vassal-tributary relationship with China. For centuries, China never directly interfered with the internal affairs of the dynasty. It was Japan that came to rule the Koreans directly, when that country subordinated the Yi royal family in the colonial annexation of 1910.

The end of Japanese rule following World War II (1939–1945) marked the beginning of a peculiar era for Korean history that continues today. In 1945, upon the surrender of the Japanese armed forces, Korea was partitioned into northern and southern halves along the 38th parallel, governed respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviets endorsed a group of former guerrilla fighters as national leaders. This included a thirty-two-year-old legendary anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung's advantage over other patriots was that he was never apprehended by the Japanese colonial authorities; the consistency of his track record authenticated his quality as a national leader.

The North Korean state was founded on September 9, 1948, three years after the nation was divided into north and south, and approximately three weeks after the South Korean state was established with the sponsorship of the United Nations and the United States. But the preparation for North Korean state-building had already begun in 1945. With Soviet support, the northern leaders had carried out socioeconomic reforms including free distribution of land to the farmers, a gender equality law, and public ownership of key industries.

National Identity. A national identity as such was not born automatically with the emergence of the North Korean state. The northern leaders held the

A farmer assesses crop damage caused by flooding in North Korea. Severe food shortages have occurred in recent years.
A farmer assesses crop damage caused by flooding in North Korea. Severe food shortages have occurred in recent years.
official view that the establishment of the North Korean state was an interim measure, with the ultimate goal being the unification of the entire peninsula in a single Korean national state. Kim Il Sung was not considered the national leader from the outset, either. He and his faction of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (originally named the Communist Party of Korea) systematically eliminated rival factions and individuals over several decades. Kim Il Sung's ascendancy to absolute leadership started during the Korean War with the elimination of Pak Hon-yong, who headed the South Korean Workers' Party. After the war, Kim took leadership in close connection to North Korea in its sociopolitical form from traditional Korean culture, enabling it to start anew. North Korean national identity is indissolubly connected with loyalty to Kim and North Korean-style socialism.

Despite the heavy Soviet influence, Northern Korea was driven by patriotic and nationalist zeal and anti-Japanese sentiment, rather than by an ideological commitment to socialism and communism.

In contrast to the south, where Korea's high society had been traditionally located, the north had no notable political and cultural center except for P'yongyang, which was an obvious choice for the capital. With this lack of centralized political power and cultural tradition, North Korea was able to start largely from scratch. This proved useful for constructing a brand-new North Korean cultural identity, stemming from the Soviet cultural current but distinctly North Korean at the same time.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Except for a total of perhaps ten cities, vast areas of North Korea are rural—or even untouched. These are areas that are not just underdeveloped, but undeveloped. For example, in 1985 a mining town in the northeastern part of North Korea had houses with no running water, no electric or fuel heating system, no lavatories or bath, no washbasin, no kitchen, and almost no furnishings. The residents used communal facilities and lived in tiny two-room houses heated by coal. Houses were equipped with electricity for lights, but its use was strictly controlled.

Located throughout North Korea—in towns such as the above, in the remotest of the villages, and in the capital P'yongyang, are the ubiquitous slogans praising Kim Il Sung's leadership and mobilizing the citizens to the revolutionary struggle and the socialist cause. The capital's landscape is also marked by austere buildings, vast streets with almost no cars, children and pedestrians in orderly lines, no trace of trash—almost clinically beautiful, but somewhat lifeless. Behind the formal facades, though, the back streets are very different. There are muddy streets and alleyways, chaotic residential quarters, and the normal confusion and noise of everyday life.

P'yongyang is marked by a planned cityscape, clustered around Kim Il Sung-related monuments such as the 20-foot-high gold statue of Kim that looks down on the city. The capital is located on the Taedong, an extremely beautiful river with small islands and a riverbank covered with swinging willows and nicely kept flowerbeds. Everything in the center of the capital is carefully designed and built, including the People's Study Hall, Children's Palace, Mansudae Art Hall, P'yongyang Grand Theatre, the Parisien style arch, and recently built international hotels and restaurants. During the 1960s and 1970s, the peak of P'yongyang's reconstruction after the Korean War, the basic austere style and layout of the city was established. Some buildings, such as the Korean Revolutionary Museum and Kim Il Sung University, bear the features of European modernist architecture. These are mixed with the more tradition-inspired architecture of the 1980s, including the People's Study Hall and the city gate.

A majority of P'yongyang's residents live in apartments. Individual houses with their own electricity and heating systems are reserved for high-ranking party members and army officers. In the late 1990s, individual dwellings became popular among postwar repatriates from Japan, who, through financial support from their families remaining in Japan, are able to purchase houses. The majority of North Korean citizens do not own a car.

Apart from the capital and a very few cities that are comparable to it, the national landscape is divided into semi-urban, undeveloped, and agricultural areas. As visitors are not allowed, not much is known about the agricultural areas.

North Korean nature reserves can be extremely beautiful. National resorts such as Mount Myohyang and Mount Kumgang are magical in their charm and grandiose beauty. Here too one finds the revolutionary slogans, such as "Long Live the Great Leader Kim Il Sung!" One can see these slogans not only on panels that can be removed if necessary, but also carved on the rocky walls of mountains, filled with permanent red paint.

North Korea has constructed a revolutionary pilgrimage route, marking important locations connected to Kim Il Sung's anti-Japanese resistance. These include the Mount Paektu and the forest surrounding it, Hyesan city in the central north and its vicinity, and other areas mainly concentrated on the Chinese border. Another pilgrimage site is Kim Il Sung's birthplace in Man'gyongdae, near P'yongyang, where the cottage where he grew up is preserved.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. White rice and meat soup was once a symbol of good food in the North Korean rhetoric. It is not certain whether the population still eats white (steamed) rice due to the severe food shortage that became clear only in recent years. The visitors from overseas are normally given abundant food to eat, including meat, vegetables, dairy products, and fruits. However, ordinary citizens do not eat such a variety of food. Also, the North Korean diet does not include spicy food using chili and garlic, traditional in the Korean diet: There is no kimchee as found elsewhere. Another point to stress is that they do not seem to have candies or sweets for children: sugar is in short supply and regarded

A group of North Korean girls walk to school. Education in North Korea is geared toward furthering the influence of state socialism.
A group of North Korean girls walk to school. Education in North Korea is geared toward furthering the influence of state socialism.
as a highly luxurious ingredient. Only when one visits the ranking officers' stores where one can use foreign currency is there a poor variety of sugary sweets. Basic food is rationed, while one can buy canned meat or a small amount of vegetables either from a store or farmers' market.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. All the food is state regulated, and this precludes obtaining any special food. For state-sponsored banquets, food is supplied abundantly, accompanied with nearly endless supply of wines and liqueurs. However, for ordinary people's ceremonies, such as the sixtieth birthday that is traditionally celebrated as a commemoration of longevity, it would not be the case.

Basic Economy. The Korean War (1950–1953) and the almost total destruction of the northern infrastructure by the allied bombing that flattened P'yongyang and napalmed the civilians paved the way for North Korea to emerge as a new, fresh, and truly heroic nation of Koreans. This was, according to North Korean officials, in contrast to South Korea, which was labeled a U.S. puppet regime. The destruction of economy was thorough, while the war casualties reached a phenomenal number and millions fled to the south as refugees. With Soviet and Chinese aid, reconstruction began immediately after the war. In the process of reconstructing the economy, the North Korean government collectivized agriculture, reinforced state and public ownership of heavy and light industries, and nationally unified education and the arts and sciences. By 1960, North Korea had a typical Soviet-style socialist economy and the party's hegemony had been consolidated.

In this process, a new form of leader-subject relations emerged, referred to in Korean as hyonjichido —on-the-spot teaching or guiding. Film footage and photographs from the post-Korean War economic reconstruction period show numerous scenes of Kim Il Sung visiting steel mills and factories. In the 1950s and 1960s, Kim visited the workplaces nationwide, encouraging people to participate more vigorously in production. Kim's presence carried weight and the people were impressed that the country's top man had visited their home-town; the visits boosted morale and enhanced national pride. As a result, the North Korean economy recovered at a remarkable speed.

Following the three-year post-Korean War reconstruction, the North Korean government launched a five-year economic plan in 1956. Two years later, the socialist reform of production was declared complete and agriculture and industry became publicly owned and managed. Some key industries were placed under state ownership. In 1961, another economic plan was initiated; in November 1970, the party's Fifth Congress declared North Korea to be a socialist industrial state. These were the high times for the North Korean economy, and in April 1974, North Korea abolished all taxes. Until about 1976, North Korea's per capita gross national product (GNP) was higher than the equivalent figure in South Korea.

In December 1972, the North Korean Supreme People's Congress established the North Korean socialist constitution. The same session elected Kim Il Sung president of North Korea for the first time; he was reelected in 1977 and 1982, and remained president until his death in 1994.

The famine of the late 1990s, caused by floods and other natural calamities, revealed the shortcomings of the North Korean economy. The world had known for some time that North Korea's economy lagged far behind South Korea's, but the news of the famine was alarming to the West. Following massive floods in 1995 and 1996, a dry summer accompanied by typhoon damage in 1997 devastated North Korean agriculture. In 1997, the per capita daily grain ration fell from 24.5 ounces (700 grams) to 3.5 ounces (100 grams). The ration distribution also became intermittent. Because of the increasing deaths by starvation and undernourishment, funerals were allowed only in small scale and in the evening, and were attended only by the immediate family. As poverty increased and the lack of food intensified, there were reports that crimes related to the situation were on the increase—from petty theft to organized gang robbery, often involving murder. North Korea began relying heavily on foreign aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and other Western nations. Since the beginning of 1999, North Korean publication has placed more emphasis on economy than on military affairs. It was scheduled to receive 100,000 tons of rice from Japan as of March 1999 as a result of the newly activated contact between the North Korean and Japanese governments. This and other aids from foreign governments is contributing to North Korea's slow recovery from a serious food shortage.

Land Tenure and Property. All land is state-owned or owned collectively, in the case of agricultural farms. Individuals do own movable goods such as furniture. All the houses are de jure state-provided; although it is said to be possible to buy off good housing, that would be through a personal connection rather than buying the property itself. Material goods are scarce in North Korea and generally people do not have opportunities to be exposed to expensive commodities. This works to suppress any desire to own something.

Commercial Activities. There are stores and even department stores in the big cities if one wishes to buy anything. However, basic goods are provided by the state either through ration or as a "gift" from the government (e.g. children's school textbooks or uniforms). In this sense, commercial activities among the ordinary citizens are minimal. In recent years, collaboration between Korean merchants in Japan took off with restaurant and hotel operation, but such ventures ran into serious difficulty since North Korea's food shortage became clear. There is an ongoing project of building a free trade zone in the northeastern region of North Korea, with collaboration of South Korean and Chinese capitals. This again is a tardy project and contrary to initial hopes, little success is expected.

Major Industries. North Korea's major industries are geared toward its domestic resources, and so include iron and steel production, mining, machinery, and other heavy industries. Its light industry also revolves around the domestic supply and lacks variety in products.

Trade. In the past, North Korea confined its trade counterparts to socialist states third world countries, particularly Africa. However, since the end of the Cold War, it has been trying to establish more stable relationships with Japan and the United States, while its former trade partners are shifting the emphasis from friendship-based trade to a more business-minded attitude. One of its major imports is weapons imported from Russia and China.

Division of Labor. Heavy industry is assigned to men, light industry to women. Jobs are assigned by the state in accordance to its judgment of family rank, ability, and qualifications. It is highly unlikely for the family of high-ranking party officers to work as a manual laborer or miner, for example. It is not acceptable for one to freely change occupation: Everything must be decided by higher authorities.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Although the government officially claims that North Korea is a classless society that has done away with the remnants of feudalism

People attend the funeral and cremation of a Buddhist monk. North Korea. Though there are Buddhist monks and nuns in the country, North Koreans do not have much religious freedom.
People attend the funeral and cremation of a Buddhist monk. North Korea. Though there are Buddhist monks and nuns in the country, North Koreans do not have much religious freedom.
and capitalism, it is clearly a class society starkly divided between the politically powerful and politically powerless, with an unequal distribution of monetary and nonmonetary privileges. The highest ranking people in North Korea are Kim Il Sung's family and relatives, followed by his old comrades and their families, who used to be referred to as revolutionary fighters, denoting their participation in the anti-Japanese armed resistance. The next stratum is made up of the families of Korean War veterans and anti-South Korea sabotage officers. The children of this class typically are educated in schools for the bereaved children of the revolutionaries and face better career opportunities. Women generally lag behind men in high-status positions in society, but a daughter of an established revolutionary can rank very high in both the party and the government.

The vast majority of North Koreans are ordinary citizens who are divided and subdivided into ranks according to their family history and revolutionary or unrevolutionary origin. Status is regularly reviewed, and if any member of the family commits an antirevolutionary crime, other members of the family are also demoted in status.

Political Life

Government. North Korea's government is made of a presidency, a central government that is divided into various departments, and local governments. The equivalent to the United States Congress, for example, is the people's congress. The Supreme People's Congress passes the laws, which are carried through by local people's committees that are organized in a top-down fashion following the administrative units such as province, county, city, and agricultural collectives and co-ops. Offices for the People's Congress and committees are based on the election that takes place every five years.

There is normally only one candidate per office and the turn-out rate for voting marks near 100 percent every time, according to the official media report.

Leadership and Political Officials. The ruling Worker's Party of Korea has the largest decision-making power. The party is not just a political organization, but a moral and ethical icon for the people. The party is also divided top-down from the central committee to the local party offices. Since Kim Il Sung's death, it is Kim Jong Il, his son, who holds the supreme authority inside the party. Kim Jong Il is also the supreme commander of the army. He is so deemed in not only North Korea but by the South Korean government. When in June 2000 the South Korean president Kim Dae Jung visited North Korea to meet with the northern leader for the first time in the fifty years of Korea's division, Kim Jong Il appeared in person to greet Kim Dae Jung and the meetings between the two leaders took place in a highly cordial and mutually respectful atmosphere. It has been decided that Kim Jong Il will pay the return visit to the south, which will confirm his authority in the eyes of the South Korean citizens. The north-south meetings put forth some measures for reuniting the families that were separated during the Korean War and cultural collaboration between the two Koreas, ultimately aiming at reunification. The North Korean leadership enhanced its legitimacy through this recent move.

Social Problems and Control. The participation in political organizations occupies an important place in the everyday lives of North Koreans. By definition, every citizen in North Korea belongs to at least one political organization and this replaces a system of social control: the Korean Democratic Women's Union, the Korean Congress of Trade Unions, the Korean Socialist Labor Youth League, the Korean Farmers' Union, the Korean Press Association, the Korean Association of Writers and Artists, or the Korean Young Pioneers.

Technically, all those who live on North Korean soil are North Korean citizens except for those who already have foreign citizenship, such as diplomats and visitors. North Koreans have citizens' certificates identifying their class origin and current address. No one in North Korea is allowed to change their residence at will: they have to apply to move to another province or town and have a legitimate reason, such as marriage. Not even weekend journeys or holidays are left to individual discretion; one has to apply for such a trip through the appropriate authorities. Family holidays must be approved by the authorities, and normally families have to wait for their vacation quota. Sometimes individuals who distinguish themselves in devotion to the party and the state are rewarded with a family vacation.

Contrary to the traditional registration system of Korea, which was based on family registration, North Korean registration is based on individual identification. Each individual is subject to regular investigation by the authorities for the purpose of classification and reclassification according to class origin. For example, a person who commits a crime might be reclassified in terms of "soundness" of origin.

Military Activity. Although it has been said that in North Korea, the military has the ultimate say in decision making, it is hard to determine the degree of exercise of power by the military. North Korea's military leader, Kim Jong Il, is also the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. In 1998, it became known that North Korea's military launched a missile across the Japanese archipelago into the Pacific. The incident is still being debated, but it is evident that North Korea's expenditure on military affairs is severely constraining its economy. The conscription is not mandatory, but many gifted young men and women join the army in order to obtain a ticket to the higher education through the army's recommendation after several years' service. The duration of the service is not clearly defined. Some stay five to six years, others less; women tend to stay shorter than men do. To go to the army even for a couple of years is an honor in North Korea, since it is a demonstration of one's readiness to devote one's life to the motherland.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

All citizens in North Korea join one or more of the following political organizations in the course of their lives: the Korean Democratic Women's Union, the Korean Congress of Trade Unions, the Korean Socialist Labor Youth League, the Korean Farmers' Union, the Korean Press Association, the Korean Association of Writers and Artists, the Korean Young Pioneers, and so on. In addition, there are three political parties: the Workers' Party of Korea, the Korean Democratic Party, and the Ch'ondo Religious Friends Party. The latter two, however, have disappeared from North Korea's public politics since the 1980s. The local headquarters and branches of these organizations form the basis of political life of individuals. Rather than home or family, the political organizations one belongs to are, in principle, the primary basis for social identification and the most important vehicle for socialization for North Koreans. Also, if one comes from an ordinary background, to do well in these organizations would create better opportunities.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. In North Korea it is widely accepted that men run the heavy industry and women work in light industry. Beyond this, the division is highly diverse. For example, agriculture is not necessarily regarded specifically as a man's or

Gables of a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Gables of a Zen Buddhist monastery.
woman's job. When it comes to the domestic division of labor, although the state and the party try to minimize the work by introducing canned food and electrical appliances, it remains that women do most of the housework and child rearing even while working as many hours as men outside of the home. This effectively doubles women's burdens in society.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women's status is not equal to that of men. Men have a far better chance in advancing in politics, while women, particularly after marriage, are seen as "done" with a political career. This is different for women from the high-ranking families, whose background and connections would outmaneuver handicaps that ordinary woman would have to bear. In North Korea, women are supposed to have certain mannerisms that are regarded as feminine. They are not supposed to wear trousers unless they are factory workers or agricultural laborers.

In professional settings, however, women are often as assertive as their male counterparts. The only occupation where behavior is sometimes flirtatious or subservient is as a waitress, but for women it is an honor to hold this position as they are selected for their beauty, good family background, and educational qualifications.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Individual registration has had a significant effect on the North Korean marriage system. In Korean tradition, marriage between a man and a woman who share the same family origin is not allowed. Since all Koreans were required to keep family records since the time of the Yi dynasty, everyone can trace their family origin. If two people share the same ancestral name, they were regarded as brother and sister, and hence subject to the incest taboo. Since North Korea abolished the family registry, marriages between individuals from the same ancestral clan—as long as they are not direct relatives—are lawful.

A primary consideration in marriage is the compatibility of class origins. If a man comes from the family of a high-ranking party member, and a woman from a family that does not have a comparable sociopolitical status, a marriage between the two would not be approved of by the society. If a man comes from a family that was originally repatriated from Japan in the postwar period and a woman comes from a family that is "native" North Korean, a marriage between the two is considered difficult since, generally speaking, repatriates are regarded with suspicion and distrust due to their ongoing connection with families in Japan. Hence, classes tend to marry within themselves just as in capitalist societies.

Upon marriage, a couple is given a house or, if they live in an urban area, an apartment. Ordinary couples, however, often have to wait until their application for a residence is approved by the authorities. The case of a couple from high-ranking families will be different: they will receive preferential treatment when seeking housing. Normally, newlyweds conduct a small ceremony, inviting close friends, neighbors, and family members, take a photo if they can afford it, and register their marriage. There is no feast or party and no honeymoon. Even wedding dresses are made from state-rationed fabrics, and therefore brides of a certain period all look more or less alike.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is a nuclear family with some degree of stem family practice, i.e. the family of one of the children (most likely a son) living with aged parents. Houses are small throughout the country and this restricts having large families as a norm. Adoption takes place through orphanages.


Child Rearing and Education. The process of economic recovery following the Korean War was also the process by which the population was successfully turned into members of the newly emerging nation. Compulsory education and the general literacy program played a decisive role in forming individuals into new subjects of state socialism, subjects capable of reproducing the state-coined, politically correct vocabulary and revolutionary rhetoric. Starting on 1 November 1958, all education up to middle school became compulsory and free of charge. By 1975, North Korea had extended this to eleven years of free compulsory education, including one year in a collective preschool. In addition, factories and collective farms have nursery schools where children are introduced to socialization and taken care of collectively away from home, since mothers are usually full-time workers.

In North Korea's linguistic practice, Kim Il Sung's words are frequently quoted as a gospel-like reference point. People learn the vocabulary by reading publications of the state and the party. Since the print industry and the entire publishing establishment are strictly state-owned and state-controlled, and no private importation of foreign-printed materials or audiovisual resources is permitted, words that do not conform with the interest of the party and the state are not introduced into the society in the first place, resulting in efficient censorship.

The vocabulary that the state favors includes words relating to such concepts as revolution, socialism, communism, class struggle, patriotism, anti-imperialism, anticapitalism, the national reunification, and dedication and loyalty to the leader. By way of contrast, the vocabulary that the state finds difficult or inappropriate, such as that referring to sexual or love relations, does not appear in print. Even so-called romantic novels depict lovers who are more like comrades on a journey to fulfill the duties they owe to the leader and the state.

Limiting the vocabulary in this way has made everyone, including the relatively uneducated, into competent practitioners of the state-engineered linguistic norm. On the societal level, this had an effect of homogenizing the linguistic practice of the general public. A visitor to North Korea would be struck by how similar people sound. In other words, rather than broadening the vision of citizens, literacy and education in North Korea confine the citizenry into a cocoon of the North Korean-style socialism and the state ideology.

Higher Education. Higher education is regarded as an honor and a privilege, and as such, it is not open to the general public at will. Men and women who have served in the military would be recommended to subsequent higher education. There are also "gifted" entries to the universities and colleges, where the candidate's intellectual merit is appreciated. Normally, however, it depends on one's family background in determining whether or not one obtains the opportunity of learning at a college for years at the state's expense. (Hence, for ordinary men and women, the military is a secure detour.) Sometimes, candidates are recommended from factories and agricultural collectives, with the endorsement of the due authorities.


Religious Beliefs. What most characterizes North Korean socialism is its leadership, built on the basis of the cult of personality of Kim Il Sung. Through the state-engineered education system, Kim and his family are introduced as role models for men and women, young and old. By the time they are in kindergarten, children can recite stories from Kim's childhood. Moral ideological education in North Korea is allegorically organized, with Kim Il Sung and his pedigree as protagonists.

Kim Il Sung's name is ubiquitous in North Korea. For example, if one is asked how one is, the model answer would be "thanks to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, I am well," and the North Korean economy is remarkably strong "thanks to the wise guidance of Marshal Kim Il Sung." The ideology that represents the leader cult is called the Juche idea. Juche literally means "subject" and is often translated as self-reliance. In North Korea, slogans such as "Let us model the whole society on the Juche idea!" are heard daily. North Korea's official history claims that Kim Il Sung first established the Juche ideology in 1927 when he founded the Anti-imperialism Youth League in Jilin in northeastern China. The Juche idea is quite unlike Marxist historical materialism. Rather, it is a sort of idealism, placing emphasis on human belief; in this sense, it resembles a religion rather than a political ideology. Under the ideology of Juche, North Korea achieved many remarkable goals, including the economic recovery from the ashes of the Korean War. In the name of loyal dedication to Kim Il Sung, national unity was accomplished and national pride instilled North Korean citizens.

Religion is theoretically permitted in North Korea, and a visitor may meet a Buddhist monk or

A soldier guards the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea.
A soldier guards the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea.
nun. But North Koreans hardly have freedom of religion. The monks and nuns that tourists meet may not have any public followers; indeed, they themselves may be loyal followers of the leader. Traditionally, northern Korea had strong centers of Christianity, and Christianity played an important role in organizing anti-Japanese resistance during the colonial period. Similarly, the Ch'ondo religion that emerged in the nineteenth century as an indigenous Korean religion was strengthened in the process of anti-Japanese resistance. In fact, many Ch'ondo leaders were included in the initial state-building of North Korea. Decades of Kim Il Sung worship transformed the religious plurality, though; with the leader's ascendancy, non- Juche ideas came to be regarded as heterodox and dangerous, or as bourgeois and capitalist.

Korean culture has an age-old Confucian tradition, although this heritage does not exist in today's North Korea as it did in the past. Rather, its form and direction changed due to the intervention of leader-focused socialism. Kim Il Sung often is depicted in a paternalistic manner, personified as a benevolent father (and at times, father-mother, asexually or bisexually) who looks after the whole population as children and disciples. Kim Il Sung created the notion of a family state with himself as the head of the nation. Indeed, a popular North Korean children's song includes this refrain: "Our Father is Marshal Kim Il Sung/ Our home is the bosom of the party/ We are one big family/ We have nothing to envy in the whole wide world."

Secular Celebrations

National celebrations include the Foundation of the People's Army (8 February), Kim Jong Il's birthday (16 February), Kim Il Sung's birthday (15 April), May Day (1 May), Young Pioneers Day (6 June), National Foundation Day (9 September), and the Workers' Party Day (10 October). Some of these celebrations are carried out with a Soviet-style military parade, while others are commemorated with art festivals and official congregations in local and central government units.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The production of arts and literature in North Korea is controlled entirely by the state. Their ideological line, form of presentation, dissemination to the public, and availability are all under the administration of state authorities. This does not mean that North Koreans suffer from a poverty of art. On the contrary, there is quite a rich variety of art genres and distinct fashions that come and go over time. Film is more fully developed than literature, perhaps because of Kim Jong Il's involvement in the medium.

Literature. Literature is produced by state-salaried official writers whose novels and poems tend to be pedantic, predictable, and outright boring. For example, a long-selling popular novel Ode to Youth (first published in 1987 and continuously reprinted until 1994) is a story of a technician in a steel mill, whose relationship with his girlfriend is interwoven with other human relations among his colleagues. The story in the end reconfirms that in North Korea all relations, including romantic ones, exist to encourage loyalty to the leader. This has been the pattern in literature since the 1960s. Typically, human relationships are depicted in simplistic ways, with romantically-involved couples never hesitating to help each other become heroes for the revolution. There is no complex web of psychology, diversity of personality, or unexpected events that are quite often part of the ordinary lives of individuals. North Korean literature is full of barren, lifeless language, which is to be expected given the limited vocabulary the North Korean state makes available to the public.

Graphic Arts. North Korea has distinct graphic arts related to a mixture of Korean traditional drawing and the techniques of western watercolor. Large mural art is commonly seen inside the public buildings in North Korea, and the theme is usually leader worship—typically Kim Il Sung in the middle, larger than other people surrounding him. People of al ages, occupation, and dress circle him with adoration and admiration in their eyes. The commission of such art is done by the state, and in this sense, there is no private artist. Also commonly seen are large sculptures depicting history patriotically, such as Korean War heroes and anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters; there are usually portrayed in the Soviet style. No individual artist is endorsed in this type of public art display. One cannot miss in North Korea ubiquitous statues and sculptures, paintings and even embroidery art that portray in beautified form Kim Il Sung and his family. These are displayed in public spaces; in terms of art to purchase privately, there are paintings and other products that use traditional Korean (or East Asian) ink paint or oil paint. These are most readily found in the international hotel shops and are not readily available for ordinary citizens to purchase.

Performance Arts. Under the direct intervention of Kim Jong Il, a new form of films has emerged in North Korea, especially since the 1980s. Sin Sang-ok and Ch'oi Un-hui—married former South Korean citizens, a director husband and an actress wife—played an important role in introducing this new version of North Korean film. The Sin-Ch'oi team, which enjoyed the endorsement of Kim Jong Il, produced many realist films. Their work is based on Korean literature of the 1930s, which was very strongly influenced by Russian realism as well as the Japanese proletarian literary movement. Classics such as The Blanket by Ch'oi So-hae were made into films that represented family life and the misery of poverty in an unprecedented vivid style. Also popular was the long-running series Heroes without Name, which depicted romantic relations among North Korean spies who worked undercover in South Korea after the Korean War.

Films in North Korea are inexpensive entertainment for the general public, while other more specialized genres such as circuses or song and dance ensembles are reserved for foreign guests and national festivals. Only selected individuals—either by their revolutionary heritage or by being recognized as meritorious contributors to the revolution—are invited to enjoy such entertainment.


Buzo, Adrian. The Guerrilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea, 1999.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History , 1997.

——. The Origins of the Korean War, Volume 1, 1981.

——. The Origins of the Korean War, Volume 2, 1990.

Henriksen, Thomas, and Jongryn Mo. North Korea after Kim Il Sung, 1997.

Hunter, Helen-Louise. Kim Il-Song's North Korea, 1999.

Kim, C. I. Eugene, and B. C. Koh, eds. Journey to North Korea: Personal Perceptions, 1983.

Kim, Yun, and Eui Hang Shin, eds. Toward a Unified Korea: Social, Economic, Political, and Cultural Impacts of the Reunification of North and South Korea, 1995.

Park, Han S., ed. North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy, 1996.

Suh, Dae-Sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, 1995.

Suh, Dae-Sook, ed. North Korea after Kim Il Sung, 1998.


User Contributions:

Dont give out my name...sorry
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May 23, 2006 @ 6:06 am
Well...i think that this website is great!!
im doing a korean assinment and this was the only webiste i found that could answer the religion question...thankyou thankyou thankyou!!!!
great webby and i have it on my favorites list just in case another stoopid korean assinment comes up again :)
thanks again!!
E. Lee
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Nov 16, 2007 @ 9:09 am

Do you have an email where I can contact you? I am interested in obtaining photo rights to two photos on this website.

Please let me know if this is feasible.
Thank you!
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Mar 6, 2008 @ 7:07 am
Hey..who is the author of this article?..Can i know ur e mail adderss? cuz i m doing research on North Korean culture and i wanna ask questions about it. When is this article posted on the web?
Ryan Martin
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May 22, 2008 @ 9:21 pm
Thank you for the helpful information. I really appreciate that needing to know info about North korea, I really needed it for school.
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Jun 29, 2008 @ 8:08 am
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Dec 12, 2008 @ 9:21 pm
wow. you gave me half of my research right here. everywhere i search, it gives me info that doesn't answer my research question. your info actually gave me much of my research. i thank you very much
Flip Mory
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Apr 26, 2009 @ 9:09 am
This article helped me tremendously in my 5 page report for english. Thank you
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Aug 6, 2009 @ 11:11 am
hey2! yar2 me too.. i spend two weeks looking for info about north korea and just tonight when i started to do my research this website came out. YOU SAVED MY LIFE!!!! superb!
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Jan 9, 2010 @ 10:10 am
i like this website it is very helpful to my project and my reasearch
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Jan 15, 2010 @ 6:18 pm
this is awesome information. Please help though, when was this posted? and who is the author for the article? Please, Thank you!
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Feb 4, 2010 @ 9:21 pm
great website. i am going for an MUN and our team is N. Korea.Need information about drug trafficking
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Mar 25, 2010 @ 5:05 am
This website is a good source of information. I've learned a lot about North Korea. Some of my questions are answered.
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Apr 7, 2010 @ 11:11 am
great info on North Korea...I have to do a speech on North Korea and this site was very resourceful. Is there anyway I can get the date when this article was posted for my Annotated Bibliography? Also, it would be great to have photo rights to use some of the pics posted on this site for my presentation.
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Apr 8, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
I love this because it tells me about North Korea and it is great for reports. Thank you whoever wrote this.
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May 20, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
Thanks so much for all of this wonderful information!
This has helped me so much in my quest for North Korean knowledge.
Your information was perfect for answering most of my questions. :]
Chris Gomez
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Dec 12, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
Great stuff
I was stuck on my research on NK's culture until I found this article. Had everything I needed.
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Mar 17, 2011 @ 11:11 am
i was wanting to use some of this great info on north korea in my speech. i would appreciate if you could send me author, date of print, and all that other info needed to cite this for my speech.


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Mar 25, 2011 @ 9:09 am
can any one help me by telling me the names of two famous musical artists in North Korea? Thank you !!
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Apr 2, 2011 @ 7:07 am
Hi, this info was a huge help for my north korean assignment but i have 2 questions.
What do you think are the communication considerations for companies wanting to make a presence in the country? ie if a new product was to try and enter the market in NK.

And can you recommend some communication initiatives which these companies can make use of.
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May 14, 2011 @ 11:23 pm
Good morning
I have to do a 10 minute speech on N. Korea. It has to contain the Historical considerations, Cultural considerations (e.g., race, ethnicity, language and religion) And United States interest/relationship. If you can help me that will be great. Thank You
honey oh
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Jun 15, 2011 @ 6:06 am
this website is so great,..i can learn more ..example is the korea traditions..:)
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Aug 25, 2011 @ 7:19 pm
May be useful of Presentation, need to read a little more but looks very informative. :D
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Sep 14, 2011 @ 10:10 am
I am a experieced bilingual techer, Spanish/Englis with more than twenty years of experience and want to visit and work in this historic country.
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Jan 25, 2012 @ 10:22 pm
This is wonderful, totally recommend it! You did a marvelous job! :-)
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Mar 12, 2012 @ 9:09 am
A very informative article, it answered a lot of questions about the secretive culture of North Korea.
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Jun 19, 2012 @ 10:10 am
Wow! Thank you for this wealth of information on North Korea!. I had no idea, North Korea was so segregated from the entire world! Reading this article made me think of all the dictators..especially Saddam Hussain and Hitler. This is extremely sad that in these modern times, people are still being politically oppressed, and brain washed into thinking that this way of living is actually acceptable.
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Dec 19, 2012 @ 8:20 pm
Thanks. This helped me a lot even thought i'm 100% sure that my project is on modern day North Korean and this has to be so many years ago. Korea now reminds me of Hitler or Stalin. However if this information is correct than North Korean has change alot. They have life long prison camps, food shortage, bad health care. The dirty hospitals, no sterilize needles, and the people have to bring beer bottles if they need an IV.
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Mar 1, 2013 @ 3:03 am
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Mar 10, 2013 @ 7:07 am
Thanks for article!... Please can sou email me your full name and the date when you relase this article?
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Mar 18, 2013 @ 9:21 pm
Very helpful site. Thanks! It helped me with a project I had for an english class.
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Apr 2, 2013 @ 8:20 pm
I am doing a project for my Socioloy class, and my groups topic is "Life in North Korea", I am supposed to be doing the culture, nonmaterial(beliefs, values,norms,language,gestures,etc) AND material culture(jewelry, art,buildings,weapons,machines,hairstyles, clohing etc) and this article DID help, but do you have any other recommnded sites, or books that have information along those lines, in present day North Korea?

Also, like others have said, how do I get your information for a bibliography??

If you could email me, or somehow let me know that would be awesome! Thanks
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Apr 10, 2013 @ 11:11 am
I am looking for cultural issues. Couldn't find any here
Tyrone Bentley
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May 7, 2013 @ 4:16 pm
Where can I research the types of martial arts practiced in North Korea ...specifically is Kumdo practiced in North Korea. Thank you in advance for your assistance.
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May 14, 2013 @ 7:19 pm
thanks every culture this actually helped me in my report about north korea
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Nov 10, 2013 @ 10:22 pm
job well done! very clear and well written. i am more educated on north korea because of your article. thank you
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Feb 13, 2014 @ 10:10 am
I just want to thank you for creating this website. I have been searching for about a week now and I couldn't find anything that was even close to what I was searching for on North Korea. Specially about the religion and such. Tons of information on South Korea, but not so much on it's northern counterpart.
mariya asereht madero
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Sep 14, 2014 @ 3:03 am
i very much thank you for this information it can help so much in doing my assignment ..
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Sep 28, 2014 @ 10:10 am
Wow gr8 piece! A lot of interesting information! Very informative! Thanks!
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Nov 13, 2014 @ 1:13 pm
Nice information about North Korea I enjoyed reading this.
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Mar 3, 2015 @ 7:07 am
thank you! now i have my project! continious doing that!
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Mar 26, 2015 @ 10:10 am
This is really helpful with my research project. Thank you so much!
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Sep 21, 2015 @ 2:14 pm
Indeed it is a very informative article, but at some point it seem biased. As said by many friends that it helped them in there research, means it would become a part of history so Historian should avoid politics and give balance viewpoint. Thanks
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Nov 15, 2015 @ 5:17 pm
This report was great it shows me everything I need to know about North Korea and what there culture is. I love it so much it gave me an B+ in my test.

Thank You!!!
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Mar 18, 2016 @ 9:09 am
Awesome. Doing a social studies report and this helps alot
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Apr 11, 2016 @ 12:12 pm
thanks alot for adding alot about korean culture NOT! ALL I WANT TO KNOW IS SOME KOREAN CULTURE!
no one
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Apr 11, 2016 @ 5:17 pm
Thank you for all the info I would just like to know a little more. Im doing a project on this so I just need a little more can you put a little more. Thank you so much
ela 🦁
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Aug 13, 2017 @ 7:19 pm
Hey, I found this website. And imidiatly finished my project. Love it. Great.
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Sep 4, 2017 @ 4:16 pm
hello i am searching about north korea and i wanna know more about it thanks!
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Sep 27, 2017 @ 11:11 am
OMG Thanks you peoples of every culture! You are awesome.
william wallaby
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Dec 5, 2017 @ 3:15 pm
i like this website its the only one about north Korea that does not involve missiles thank this helped me pass on my asignment
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Jun 3, 2018 @ 3:15 pm
This is really cool. I never realized North Korea's culture was so complex.
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Sep 21, 2018 @ 11:11 am
Could you send me the citation information for this article. I would like to cite it in my paper regarding North Korean Culture
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Nov 17, 2018 @ 4:16 pm
Could you please send me the Author Name and the published date of the document in regarding for citing for North Korean culture paper.
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Nov 21, 2018 @ 11:11 am
I need the arthurs name who wrote the article and the date written please.
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Dec 1, 2018 @ 1:13 pm
Hey, how come the author is not responding? A lot of people are asking for the author's name. I do not think all the information is accurate. It changes dynamically.
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Dec 7, 2018 @ 11:23 pm
Dear author,

This article is well-written and is great source for my paper as well as for majority of users here! Thank you so much for your work.
It would be better if you wrote your name and the date published though, for copyright purposes.

Kind regards,

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Jan 15, 2019 @ 7:19 pm
Hi! I'm using this website as a source for my college research paper. Who is the author and the year it was written, for citing purposes?

Thank you!
Jacob Ingle
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Mar 26, 2019 @ 3:03 am
This helped me do my integrated project. I hope I get "A"s
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Jan 30, 2020 @ 11:11 am
hi there i can’t find economy section thing can someone help

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