Unification Media Group (UMG): We are accustomed to complaining about how quickly the holidays seem to pass, and these sorts of remarks are also common in North Korea after the long Chuseok holiday. However, although many in the South worry about shopping, cooking, and having enough money, it can be a much more stressful time for those in North Korea preparing for the demands of the holiday.
Kang Mi Jin joins us to talk about how North Koreans spend the Chuseok holiday and how it compares to the South, where people are just now settling back into their routines after an extended holiday spent visiting family and friends or traveling abroad. (Interview conducted before the Chuseok holiday.)
UMG: What are the major differences between how North and South Koreans celebrate the Chuseok holiday?
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): In North Korea, as it is in the South, we typically go to pay respects to our ancestors, give thanks to our parents, and in the past we also gave money to children after they perform the traditional bow of respect to their elders. But this practice seems to be disappearing.
These days, instead of money, the children receive candy or other snacks from their parents and other family members, evenly distributed between the younger ones at Chuseok gatherings. These can be hard to buy in tough economic times though. For example, a family in North Korea with whom I spoke told me that they instead prepared some snacks themselves to give to their family members, but that ingredients were too scarce to be able to prepare a lot.
Stalls in the markets and those on the streets do sell Chuseok snacks, but just as in the South, most stall owners close shop for the holiday, making it difficult for others to purchase these items at the last minute. However, in order to take advantage of the demand, a lot of vendors go to the mountains (to pay respects to their ancestors) quite early in the morning and return quickly to open their stalls.
UMG: I understand that there is no similar ‘broad migration’ of people traveling across the country to visit their family in the North as they do in the South during Chuseok, so are families still able to gather together for the holiday?
Kang: There’s no similar large-scale movement of people for the holidays. People in general lack the fundamental freedom of movement to travel across the country when they wish, and even if they fulfill the necessary requirements to do so, economic hardship would prevent most anyway. But since these restrictions on movement have always been in place, families have tended to have grown up in a single area, so travel is often not required in the first place.
Still, it’s common for people to worry about how they can possibly provide all of the things they want in line with the holiday’s traditions, which is why especially for those families with many children, the desire to provide a lot of snacks and candy causes significant stress.
One woman that I know living in the North told me about how in recent years she has foregone potential profits by selling cotton candy in the markets on the holiday and instead takes it to give to the children in her family. When I heard this, I thought about how unfortunate the children in North Korea are during Chuseok compared to the children here in the South, where anyone can easily access chocolate and all sorts of other candies, snacks, and fruits. The families with whom I spoke in the North recently by comparison plan to only spend about 10,000 KPW on snacks for the holiday this year.
UMG: How are the markets reacting to the recent passage of more international sanctions on the North?
Kang: Prices in the markets tend to fluctuate rather often depending on a number of variables that include both international sanctions and domestic factors, so it’s not always easy to pinpoint the exact cause of changes. But it’s clear that sanctions have caused some level of instability. Sources have informed me that prices have almost all gone up in anticipation of the Chuseok holiday.
For example, the price of 1kg of potatoes is now 1,000 KPW in Ryanggang Province, causing many to worry about grocery shopping, as they’re unable to afford all the necessary items. Some families will still find the money to spend on factory-made snacks in the markets, while others will buy what ingredients they can and prepare the snacks themselves at home.
More fortunate children (from wealthier families) may receive individually-packaged snacks such as the ones in the image at the top of this article. There are various cookies that come in different flavors. Typically the donju or other well-connected families are the only ones giving these out to their children at Chuseok, but others can also find them in the markets. However, at such high prices, poorer citizens can only buy one or two of these ‘luxury snacks’ for their holiday table setting (not for handing out and eating). For this reason, other homemade snacks without such fancy packaging are more common.
UMG: While people in South Korea can expect an item to be sold for roughly the same price nationwide, is it true that the price of an item can vary widely between different regions in the North?
Yes, that’s true. My daughter was once selected to take a field trip to Pyongyang because she had excellent grades. Later in our hometown, when she went to the market to buy some cotton candy, she remarked to the merchant that its size was much smaller than the cotton candy in Pyongyang, to which the merchant responded, “So will you go all the way to Pyongyang to buy some? You could buy a whole year’s worth of cotton candy with the cost of a ticket to Pyongyang itself.”
UMG: So the prices vary even for candy?
Kang: Yes, not only candy, but the prices of all kinds of snacks can vary throughout the country. Most items are a bit cheaper in Pyongyang because it’s closer to the production areas for many of these goods, and the prices are generally higher but also vary in the other regions, cities, and villages.
However, merchants know that they will have a hard time selling items if they try to raise prices too much, leading to market dynamics keeping prices relatively reasonable. While many believe that Pyongyang is always cheaper, prices can also sometimes end up a bit cheaper in the other regions as well.
Wholesalers sometimes gather and agree to sell their items at a higher price point, but there may be others who personally deal with the factories and are thus able to turn a profit by selling at prices even lower than in Pyongyang. In this way, yet again we can see enterprising abilities and natural market forces at work in North Korea.