Greeting Etiquette for North Koreans

Government is ever-present in North Korea, changing the way citizens interact with one another.
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Greetings in North Korea have changed along with socioeconomic conditions in the isolated nation. While north and south have only been separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North's totalitarian dictatorship left its citizens afraid to say anything wrong. Criticizing the government or admitting any slight fault could send any citizen and their family to a torturous prison camp. The nation’s economy is stagnant, so starvation is an expected part of life for many, and black market sales have sprung up in attempts to keep citizens fed. Thus North Koreans are bound not only to traditional Korean rules of etiquette but rules set by the government as well as the conditions of everyday life.

1 General Korean Greeting Etiquette

The first time you meet someone new within Korean culture, you should give a detailed introduction of yourself. When greeting and leaving an elder, bow while keeping both legs straight and together and both arms by your side. Keep your back straight and bend from the waist, and keep your head down so as not to look at the elder. When bowing, say hello. This can be said with varying levels of formality. "Annyeong-hasimnikka" is the formal version, and "Annyeonghaseyo" or "annyeong" are informal. Take care not to bow too fast or too slow. When shaking hands with someone, take care not to squeeze their hand.

2 North Korean Greetings

Traditionally, North Koreans greeted each other by asking “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”, according to New Focus International. Yet since the great famine of the 1990s, the site says, the North Korean greeting became “Have you eaten?” Since it’s considered a faux pas to admit one has not eaten, since it could be interpreted as a request for food, which is scarce, the standard reply is “I’ve just eaten.” Some may also ask on your health, i.e. “Are you sick at all?”

More recently, New Focus says, a strange greeting has arisen in response to the infiltration of methamphetamine into mainstream North Korean culture – “Do you want to do a nose?” Similar to another common greeting, “Do you want to drink tea?”, this new greeting reflects citizens’ desperate attempts to stay awake, despite malnourishment and fatigue, to make money within a dead economy.

Colette Phair has written and edited for nationally distributed publications and several nonprofit organizations. She is the author of "Nightmare in Silicon" and has published short fiction alongside the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and holds a Bachelor of Arts in politics from the University of California Santa Cruz.