How do North Koreans spend their leisure time nowadays?

North Koreans ride on bicycles along a beach in Wonsan, North Korea, June 16, 2014. (Photo : AP)

Some people say that modern civilization pays took much attention to entertain and leisure time. Not all historians agree with such a critical attitude because they are well aware: people in pre-industrial societies were almost all very poor by our standards, but they were far from starved of leisure time.

How do North Koreans spend their leisure time nowadays? What kinds of entertainment are available for them, especially if they live outside major cities?
Compared to inhabitants of modern affluent societies, the average North Korean has little in the way of access to technological entertainments, and many other kinds of entertainment while technically feasible are banned as politically suspicious.

There are no nightclubs in North Korea, though some venues in major hotels catering to both foreign patrons and affluent North Koreans come close. Public dancing is encouraged, so long as the dances are not racy and conducted in a wholesome setting (i.e. outside, during public festivities).
Karaoke, nowadays so ubiquitous in East Asia, for a brief while was popular in North Korea as well. However, a few years ago, karaoke parlors were banned (possibly because they were seen as dens of ideological contamination. Some still operate underground, but there numbers are very small, and people usually enjoy karaoke in the privacy of their homes. It is still popular, like it is across this part of the world.

Cinema features very prominently in North Korean entertainment. Studies indicate that the average North Korean visits the cinema 15-17 times a year – this is a very high number compared to South Korea or other advanced countries. One should not however think that North Korean cinema goers are treated to a new film every few weeks in their local theatre. The output of the domestic film industry is small, and the number of foreign movies allowed into the country is quite limited. Hence, the same movies move across the country for years on end. It is therefore often the case that a local cinema in North Korea would screen a film that was first released in the 1990s. After a few weeks, it is likely to be replaced by another movie from the same or slightly later period.

North Koreans nowadays are not particularly fond of their own movies; the audience finds them excessively ideological and dull. This is largely the result of North Koreans’ increasing exposure to foreign (especially South Korean) TV shows. Such expose has been made possible by the spread of VCRs and later DVD players.

Indeed, it has recently estimated that some 75% of all North Korean households have access to home entertainment via video equipment. Such devices are perfectly legal in North Korea, though of course it is seriously illegal to use them to watch South Korean and Western material. This ban is widely ignored however, and North Koreans eagerly watch soap operas from South Korea, China and the United States, as well as from other countries too.

Admittedly, North Koreans are not avid book readers – largely because available literature is seriously lacking in quality and entertainment value. Few would find a typical North Korean novel thrilling, the content of which often dwells on the trials and tribulations of a shock worker who spends a few hundred pages of the novel trying to persuade the factory’s chief engineer to increase the furnace temperature by 15 degrees.

However, in the recent decade or so, private paid libraries have begun to appear in North Korean cities. Library owners rent interesting books for a fee, and predictably, they go to great lengths to ensure that their small collections are filled with the most attractive books they can find. While some of the better parts of the officially produced literature constitute a surprisingly large part of such collections, owners know that the best money makers are translated novels – translated detective stories in particular. Most of the latter comes from countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union because Western thrillers are considered to be ideologically suspicious and never published in North Korea.

In spite of all these escapes, North Koreans spend a surprising amount of time just meeting one another. They visit each other’s houses, they enjoy picnics with their families, friends and coworkers. People dance, sing and talk together, enjoying the pleasures half-forgotten in richer places.

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