North Korean no-no: Carrying bags on your shoulder

That smacks of the capitalist South. Instead, youth are told to use backpacks or carry bags in one hand, socialist style.
By Son Hyemin for RFA Korean
North Korean no-no: Carrying bags on your shoulder North Korean authorities are cracking down on college students who carry their bags using shoulder straps, as the woman on the right is doing in this photo of students walking along a street in Pyongyang, July 24, 2017. Instead, they should hold them in their hands, like the other two women, or on their backs.
Ed Jones/AFP

In North Korea, carrying a bag with a strap on your shoulder can get you in trouble – because that’s the way they do it in the capitalist South. 

Instead, true socialists carry bags on their back or in one hand, people are told, sources in the reclusive country said.

It’s the latest example of authorities controlling even the personal details of North Koreans’ lives.

Women are told they can’t wear shorts, people are punished for using loan words from English, which they may have learned from South Korean TV dramas that get smuggled into the country on thumb drives, and couples getting married are strongly discouraged from holding wedding banquets or even clinking wine glasses at the reception.

Most of these no-nos come under the draconian Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Law, which aims to root out an invasion of so-called capitalist behavior. 

Bag violators can have their bags confiscated, be kicked out of school or even sent to labor centers for daring to tote their loot close to their hips, sources say.

“A patrol organized by the Socialist Patriotic Youth League cracked down on a college student who wore a bag on their side at the main gate of Hamhung Medical University,” a resident of the eastern province of South Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “This is the first case of a crackdown on college students for how they carry bags.”

He said that the crackdown will continue until April 15, the Day of the Sun, a major holiday in North Korea that commemorates the life of leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung.

Fashion item

Bags are one of the few ways that North Korean youths can express their individuality.

Prior to the 1990s, the government provided all school supplies, including backpacks for students. 

This ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aid from Moscow dried up, ruining North Korea’s centrally planned economy and throwing the country into the “Arduous March,” which is what North Koreans call the 1994-1998 famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Since then, it fell on the students to provide their own bags, which have become a fashion item of sorts.

To counter this tendency, authorities supplied backpacks to students in elementary, middle and high schools this year but were not able to provide backpacks to all incoming college and university students because of production shortages. 

So the crackdown instead puts the burden on the students to appear uniform.

But young people are influenced by South Korean TV shows and movies, which are illegal for them to watch.

“College students prefer to wear shoulder bags with long straps on their side because they often watch South Korean TV shows,” a resident of the western province of South Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity for personal safety.

She said that the administration at Pyongsong University of Education and Teachers Training College announced at the school’s opening ceremony that from now on, anyone carrying a bag on their side would be punished for spreading the culture of the South Korean “puppets,” a demeaning term for its southern neighbor that alludes to its close ties with the United States.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.


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