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In the United States, not much is known about the people of North Korea. That’s largely by design, on the part of both their government and ours. But we can safely assume, like all humans around this globe, North Koreans are having sex.
“North Koreans screw, just like anybody else,” jokes Sokeel Park of the nonprofit organization Liberty in North Korea. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many millions of them. But when we in the West think about the infamously isolated and oppressed country, we typically focus so much on its politics, saber rattling and woeful record on human rights that we lose sight of the fact that its citizens are just people.
“Apart from being born and dying, having sex and having kids is the most human thing possible. And it’s very humanizing to think about,” says Park, whose group specializes in smuggling refugees out of North Korea—more than 600 to date—and resettling them. “The North Korean people have been so ‘othered,’ so put in this political framework, that we forget that they fuck. Some of the guys probably ejaculate too early. They do all the human stuff.”
“People sometimes think life there is silly—they go to Kim Jong-un church and put on wacky parades,” says Michael Malice, author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. “But it’s not that way. In many ways it’s much worse than we imagine and in many ways much better, in that these people have humanity. When you go there and interact with them, they are shockingly normal, given that they are in the most abnormal country on earth.”
On a basic level, sex and love are universal truths. But in a country dominated by a governmental hierarchy that seeps into every aspect of life—indeed into the thought processes of its citizens—politics will necessarily color human behaviors. Increasingly, however, according to observers of North Korea and first-person accounts of defectors, those behaviors are being influenced by the outside world.
Much of what is happening in North Korea today can be traced to one of the lowest points in its history. By the mid-1990s, the government could no longer rely on significant aid from the Soviet Union, and funding from China began to dry up as well. Around the same time, a horrific flood and an ensuing famine led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and years of starvation. Further, the 1994 death of “supreme leader” Kim Il-sung and the colossally mismanaged reign of his son Kim Jong-Il—who at one point tried to convince his people that two rather than three meals a day was the healthier choice—exacerbated conditions. As a result, the tradition of unquestioning obeisance began to erode.
North Korea is an experiment in what happens to human behavior when there’s no sexual content in the media.
It’s important to recognize that catastrophic era. Without it, North Korea wouldn’t find itself in the beginnings of the culturally modernizing shift, relatively speaking, it is in today. To oversimplify, when all-powerful leaders fail to take care of their people, it’s not long before those people smuggle in USBs full of porn and soap operas. “If the government is feeding you, you can buy whatever crap they’re selling,” Malice says. “But if you’re hungry, it’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, this is great. I want food. I want my kids to have food.’”
The result has been what Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, has called “information fracking.”
“It’s similar to hydraulic fracking, the idea of penetrating something seemingly impenetrable through pressure. It’s a powerful metaphor for North Korea. The information and ideological blockades that once seemed impenetrable can now be penetrated,” she says. That exchange works both ways, with information about the outside world being smuggled in through foreign media and through defectors communicating back to their families, and information about North Korean culture reaching the outside world.
“Increasingly, there’s outside TV, gossip, word of mouth. These are the healthiest things—a sense of cynicism toward the regime and the law,” Malice says. After the famine, a black market emerged. First it was farmers’ markets, then scavenging and selling whatever people could get their hands on. In a totalitarian state, when economic conditions deteriorate, bribery and corruption prosper. It’s in this context that Western and South Korean norms have begun to penetrate the isolated populace.
But back to sex.
With its defined patriarchal structure and conservative mores, North Korea is similar to many other East Asian cultures. “Dating, socializing—these things are different around the world. Vietnam is different from the U.S., and North Korea is different,” Park says, likening it to other more traditional Asian countries. “It’s not like there’s something about North Korea that makes it crazy in its own category for dating and general socializing. Mainly, it’s a lot more conservative and more traditional. But things are changing, for a lot of the same reasons that there are all these other social changes.”
Dating in North Korea is a conservative affair. A typical date for a young couple might be a stroll along the river. Rollerblading and other sports are popular as well. Public displays of affection, such as holding hands or kissing, are rare—except among the bolder, relatively liberal urban youth. The policing of sexual behavior occurs across cultures, yet people always find a way to subvert it.
The lack of social media and dating apps means dating and keeping in touch have to be done the old-fashioned way.
“The first date is walking in the park,” says Rowan Beard, a tour guide with Young Pioneer Tours who lives in the border city of Dandong, China and has traveled to North Korea more than a hundred times. “They won’t hold hands. Hand-holding is done mostly between older and married couples. Younger couples would be too shy for that, but they’ll find a park bench and just talk. On the third or fourth date they’ll go to a restaurant. I’ve rarely seen North Koreans kissing. When I bring travelers along and they kiss in public, my North Korean friends will come up and say, ‘Wow, you guys are so open. I would never do that!’”
North Korea has bars, and brewing is prominent, particularly as the government tries to popularize it for potential export. But most social gatherings tend to be private since money is often scarce. “People prefer to go to each other’s houses to have beers with family and friends,” says Beard. “They don’t go out if they’re celebrating. They’re still pretty poor. You can’t go to a restaurant and just order beer. If they do go out, it’s usually because someone got married or promoted, or someone’s brother from the military is back in town.”
In 2016, the country had its first beer festival, a 20-day event to promote the government’s Taedonggang Beer Factory. “It was the first proper nightlife North Korea has ever had,” Beard says. “The festival didn’t close down until about midnight. There were so many locals rocking, drinking cheap beer, getting drunk with their friends. They did it again in 2017. The people were drunk, hugging us, like ‘Hey, fucking foreigners!’ I saw one guy passed out in a toilet and a North Korean couple making out behind a bush. It was like, ‘Fuck yeah, alcohol!’”
The event illustrates how much things have changed in recent years. Dance clubs are few and far between and mostly karaoke-focused, but they do exist, as do the rare bowling alleys and skating rinks. Young people might go to the river to get clams and cook them with gasoline, since electricity can be hard to come by at night. The lack of social media and dating apps means dating and keeping in touch have to be done the old-fashioned way, but cell phones, while still too expensive for most, are cropping up more frequently.
“There’s a rural ideal to it,” Malice says. “They’re also very chaste. It’s not like going to college and everyone is getting laid.” Interactions between young people are indeed still modest, Beard says. “It’s the Asian culture of doing everything you can to impress your parents. For most of my friends there who are in their late 30s, when they were dating, it was very conservative. They didn’t have sex until after marriage. That’s how it still is, mostly. But a lot of my friends who are bit younger than me are curious about sex. The ones who haven’t had sex yet ask lots of questions about it, like what it’s like with girls in China and other countries.”
Complicating things is the fact that most North Korean men spend their 20s in the military. The standard age for marriage is around 30 for men and 25 for women; women rarely partner with younger men. When it comes time to get married, parents—grandparents in particular—still play a big role. And unlike in the West, where class is measured largely by wealth, there is a system called songbun, which is a sort of credit score for loyalty and usefulness to the party. A higher score provides access to more food or better jobs. Naturally, parents want their children to be matched to someone with a higher status.
Those caught flouting these norms aren’t necessarily punished, as long as they’re forthcoming at weekly self-criticism sessions, where citizens gather to report on themselves and one another for various infractions. Most attempt to characterize the infractions as minor. In the emerging system, you might bribe your way out of trouble.
It’s also not uncommon for young couples to avail themselves of a sort of black market for hourly room rentals, often hosted by an older woman with an apartment near a busy market or train station. “They’ll hawk it out, basically,” says Park, “and people passing by will ask to hang out at their place. They’ll make sure they’re busy for the next few hours and you can do whatever you want in their house. It’s a sort of love motel.”
Imagine if you had one TV channel and it was just content produced by the White House. Nobody wants to watch more than five minutes of that.
“You can’t kiss in public. It’s not illegal, but it’s not cultural practice,” Jimmin Kang, a defector who escaped in 2007 at the age of 20, told the Independent in 2016. “You’re also not supposed to have sex before you are married.” Sex education is mostly unheard of, and women in particular are expected to maintain a sense of “innocence.” Prostitution remains rare, though there have been reports of it in more remote areas where there’s less party oversight. When it does occur, it’s likely in exchange for favors or admittance to the party rather than a transaction of sex for cash, as Andrei Lankov of NK News has written.
If you’re caught by the police, instead of being sent to a labor camp, you could pay them to look the other way, thanks to the new black market. This market is also how soap operas and porn are distributed, which is a significant development. “You can be killed for watching American or South Korean films or dramas,” Kang explained about his experience living there a decade ago. “You might say that’s crazy, but if people understand freedom or know how people in other countries live, it is dangerous for the government.”
For many today, it’s a risk worth taking, says Park, particularly if they feel there’s safety in numbers. “Of course South Korean soap operas are popular in North Korea,” he says. “They have the same language and a lot of the same basic cultural characteristics. North Koreans have been starved for those kinds of things for so long. Most people have access to only one television channel. Imagine if you had one TV channel and it was just content produced by the White House. Nobody wants to watch more than five minutes of that. But the South Korean stuff is being smuggled in, and it starts to be shared by young people in high schools and universities, especially in the cities. As people start watching it, it becomes known that others are watching it as well.”
And it becomes safer to talk about it among friends.
“Just like anything else, they pick up fashions from it, changing how they do their hair and also their behavior,” Park says. “We don’t really think about it in the West, but as kids we learn a lot about how to date—like the fact that you’re supposed to hold your girlfriend’s hand—from the media. So the foreign media has gone in. It’s starting from a very low baseline, but behavior is changing.”
Porn is also changing attitudes among those who have access to it, Park says, particularly since sex education and information about sexual health and functions are nonexistent. Contraceptives of any kind are rare, though South Koreans occasionally send balloons filled with condoms over the border. (It’s unclear if this initiative has led to any significant change.) The pill can be found on the black market for a price, and as in other poor countries, abortions might be performed by surgeons off the books or by citizens who’ve learned how to do them.
“People may underestimate how much of the sexual education we get in the West is from porn,” Park says. “North Korea is kind of an experiment in what happens to human behavior when you deny that kind of sexual education and there’s no sexual content in the media. People are like, ‘Oh, you can do it like that?’ They get more creative. North Korean women tell me that when their boyfriends have watched porn that’s been smuggled in, they’re better in the sack, so they’re more popular.”
The risk of smuggling or possessing porn is still great. It’s viewed as being even more subversive than foreign media. “I never watched porn there. It would have been really dangerous. Some people have pornography, but if the government found them they would go directly to a camp,” Kang said.
And yet, as people everywhere have demonstrated, there are few barriers horniness can’t overcome. Foreign media of any kind is still officially forbidden by the government, and perhaps for good reason. Even a glimpse of the outside world can have devastating effects. Sexual and romantic behavior aside, it’s the meta-narrative of what foreign films and TV shows from South Korea and elsewhere teach North Koreans that has changed attitudes.
“It’s not necessarily ‘This is how South Koreans date. The dude opened the door for the woman and she seemed to like it!’ It’s ‘Look at all the cars and skyscrapers, and they’re all wearing really nice clothes,’” Park says. “Just the quality of life on the screen is a subversive message in the North Korean political context. So knowing that, and watching with other people, you start to discuss it: ‘Wow, they all have nice mobile phones. Is it really like that?’”
Someone might mention that their cousin who escaped is sending money back home and his family is doing really well. What would it be like to escape, others might ask. Why isn’t our leadership doing more to provide us not only with necessities but with the luxuries people have in these other places? “With more access to foreign media,” Park says, “the answer becomes obvious. And it’s harder for the government to control them.