I recently met my buddies from Hanawon, the government resettlement center for North Korean defectors, for the first time in quite a while. Although I hadn’t been able to keep in touch with them, my excuse having been that I was busy, when they heard of my illness they came to visit. They were preparing a dinner of porridge and some side dishes, when one of them asked me of my vacation plans.
A defector from the same town as me started the conversation, saying, “As this is our first summer here, let’s go on a four-day vacation like the others.” Another friend seemed keen. They then proceeded to spell out the details of the trip, including the location, date, and cost, as if all had already been planned. In the end, I had no other choice but to go with their eagerness. If they hadn’t come up with a plan, I would have gone on my own vacation anyway. Even there (North Korea), I used to spare a day or two for the leisure of vacation…
Do North Korean people go on vacation to escape from the heat of July and August? Although they cannot take several consecutive days off, they do still spare a day or two to find pleasure in rivers, valleys, or by the ocean.
Usually, summer vacations are planned to incorporate national holidays, which is when factories and state-owned enterprises close, namely July 27 (‘Victory in Fatherland Liberation War’), August 15 (Independence Day) or August 28 (Youth Day).
The reason the people who don’t necessarily have to be at work (since they have accumulated days of leave) wait until the holidays to use them is that they believe these are great national holidays. Even those people who have no choice but to go out to sell in the black market on their days off still try to spare a day or two for these holidays.
Most North Koreans prefer to go on vacation in groups, rather than individually. This is to reduce the cost. Obviously, for people who struggle daily for survival, any sort of holiday is a long shot. Such families are not be able to use several days of living expenses for the enjoyment of a single day.
Once the date of the vacation is decided, it is time to look for a location. Often it is a place nearby, even within walking distance. This reflects nothing so much as the country’s inadequate transport infrastructure, as well as household financial conditions. Should heavy rain prevent one from reaching the destination, the vacation takes place at home. This is because a lack of refrigeration makes it hard to store prepared foods, while the difficulty of planning another vacation is also a factor.
At the destination, women mostly prepare food while the men pass time on activities such as playing cards, fishing, and swimming. Patriarchy still permeates North Korean society.
Pork is the preferred meat for holidays. Kimbap (rice and vegetables rolled inside dry seaweed), noodles, North Korean tofu sushi (‘Inari’ sushi), and artificial-meat-rice (rice stuffed between artificial meat made of peas) are the best-known dishes. The North Korean people also eat fish porridge, made of fish that are often locally caught.
After lunch, it is time for more recreation. When the vacation is with colleagues and friends, prizes are offered.
A loser must sing a song in penalty. Most people sing North Korean songs, but occasionally they will sing something South Korean. Around 2008, Han Myung-sook’s ‘The Lad with the Yellow Shirt’ was the most popular. The end of such recreational games usually signals the end of the vacation, and people head back to work.