The number of North Koreans filing for divorce has increased, due in part, sources say, to the stresses of a crippled economy. But because the government considers the dissolution of a marriage to be “anti-socialist,” many couples are forced to wait years for their split to become official.
“Recently, family strife has worsened for economic reasons and the number of families wanting to divorce is increasing, but the authorities ordered the courts not to easily approve divorces,” a resident of Kyongsong county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“When I occasionally pass in front of the courthouse, I always see a dozen young men and women gathered in front of the main gate. These are mostly couples who want to see a judge or lawyer to file for divorce,” she said.
Courts usually do not grant divorces unless there is an “unavoidable reason,” the source said. People who have stopped living with their spouses years ago are still waiting for their separations to be finalized.
“Divorce is traditionally recognized as an anti-socialist act that creates social unrest. Here in North Korea they insist on living a ‘socialist lifestyle’ which includes ‘home revolutionization,’” she said, without elaborating on how staying unhappily married was considered revolutionary.
“Last week, I learned something surprising from an acquaintance of mine. Her husband is an influential official in one of the courts. She said the number of divorce cases that each city and county court can handle each year is capped based on the size of the population,” the source said.
Kyongsong county, which has a population of about 106,000, can only grant 40 divorces this year, she said.
“If the court exceeds their divorce trial quota, it will be questioned by the authorities. I knew the courts were reluctant to approve divorces, but it was shocking to hear that the authorities even set the number of divorce trials,” the source said.
The source said she met a woman in front of the court who upon marriage had moved to Kyongsong county from Myonggan, the next county to the south. She returned to her hometown after splitting up with her husband, but still is forced to come back for court appearances to try to finalize her divorce.
“She has been coming to the Kyongsong courthouse for over two years trying to get her divorce and this is 60 kilometers [37 miles] from her hometown. She is so upset that it has still not been approved,” the source said.
The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged North Korea’s economy, in part because it led to the closure of the Sino–Korean border and suspension of all trade with China. Much of the country’s commerce depends on imported Chinese goods, and after the boundary was shut, families have had to scramble to find new means of making a living.
That added stress has led to an increase in marital strife, a resident of Unhung county in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“In the past few years, family quarrels have been increasing due to difficulties in living, so the number of families seeking a divorce is increasing. There used to be a tendency to be ashamed of getting a divorce, but this is not the case these days,” he said.
“People who want to get a divorce try to get one as soon as possible, but it is not easy. The amount of the bribe paid to the court judge or lawyer determines whether a divorce can be granted and how long it will take,” he said.
Bribery is a fact of life in North Korea, and people who do not pay judges for their attention can expect to wait longer for their cases to be heard.
“Since there are so many divorce applicants, it is impossible to get past the first stage of filing documents without paying a bribe to the court,” he said. “The reality is that if you don’t pay a bribe, you won’t get your divorce even after waiting three to five years.”
Conversely, divorces can happen quickly for those with plenty of cash to distribute.
“A friend of mine, who got divorced this year, gave a lawyer 500 yuan [U.S. $74] to file the papers, and then bribed the judge in charge of the trial with 1500 yuan [U.S. $222]. The process of the hearing was simplified, and the trial proceeded in a snap. He got his divorce in two weeks,” the second source said.
“The reality in North Korea is that you cannot get a divorce without money. Divorce is so difficult, it has become common for young people to not register their marriages even after they are married.”
Unregistered couples do not need to go through the divorce process. They can simply split and the state is none the wiser.
“They register their marriages only after they’ve had a child or they’ve lived together for a few years,” the second source said.
Sources told RFA of several more divorce cases they knew of.
A woman in Kyongsong county paid $300 to the court’s deputy chief to expedite her divorce last year. She got the money from her older sister who escaped North Korea to resettle in the South.
A resident in the northeastern city of Chongjin paid $500 and a truck battery to a judge who was introduced by a relative. The resident got a divorce without even visiting the court.
A man in Kyongsong county who had less means was not as fortunate. He had been separated from his wife for more than four years without receiving an official divorce. He and a different woman moved in together, but he was caught by authorities for the crime of “double marriage” and sentenced to hard labor.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.