“Puberty” in North Korea remains inside the dictionary

Wednesday 19th November, 2014

In response to teenage rebelliousness and other behavioral changes distinctly different from childhood, people often say, “Oh, it must be puberty.” To most North Koreans, the word “puberty” exists only as a dictionary definition, distant from everyday usage. New Focus International introduces a selection from defector testimonies asserting that most North Koreans experience puberty without knowing how to define it.

According to Oh Min-cheol, who defected in 2013 from Pyongsong in South Pyongan province, puberty — or sachungi (‘the spring of thought’ in Chinese) — is an unfamiliar terminology in North Korea, rarely applied to the physical and psychological changes of youth.

Oh was first perplexed by the term when visiting a South Korean friend’s house for the first time: his friends defined their son’s disobedient behavior as “puberty.” It was perplexing that the definition of the behavior seemed to make the parents more understanding towards the son’s rebelliousness.

“I’ve seen the word in the dictionary before. But I haven’t seen anyone in North Korea actually apply the word to children’s behaviors. Generally people say, “That’s how children are,” or in gloomier cases, “The kids are sensitive because they’re not getting enough to eat.” The word is just not used in everyday life.”

Lee Kyung-hee is another defector who left Chongjin with her family in 2011. While her older daughter experienced her adolescent years in North Korea, the younger daughter is currently going through adolescence in South Korea.

Sachungi — as South Koreans understand the concept — is considered a luxury in North Korean culture,” Lee says. “Many families sustain themselves on a day-to-day basis by selling petty products in the marketplace. It’s difficult for the child to stay absorbed in the privileged turbulence of puberty.”

To Lee, the use of the word “puberty” is not only a reminder of the differences between South and North Korea, but also of the drastic changes in circumstances for her family. “My younger daughter is going through puberty right now. She often stays inside her room and just listens to music, refusing to talk or listen to me. I get concerned and upset, but I also feel happy. Her sachungi reminds me why my older child was not able to experience such luxuries of youth during her adolescence. I’m just grateful that my family is living comfortably enough for my daughter to go through puberty.”

Like many defectors, Lee reminds herself of the people she left behind. “My friends back home are still preoccupied with mere survival, without ever knowing, or needing to know, about the concept of sachungi.”

The absence of the word does not necessarily indicate the absence of the experience itself. North Koreans, like the rest of the world, grow and change as human beings, with the capacity to question their surrounding. However, the very language they use in everyday life demonstrates a limited expression of diversity within an individual person, whether it is due to linguistic repression or the perceived insignificance of the term. The language that really flourishes is that of the state — e.g. Cell Committee, Party Committee, First Party Committee — and its followers, defined by their institutional characteristics and designated category within the collective society.



Reporting by Choi Dami.
Read in Korean.
Translated by Yongmin Lee. Edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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