Christmas Eve, North Korean Style

December 24th is not just Christmas Eve; it is also the birthday of one of North Korea’s three so-called national heroes, Kim Jong Il’s mother Kim Jong Suk. Naturally it is one of the biggest national holidays in the North.

However, what you might not know is that Kim Jong Suk was not even a significant figure in North Korea until long after her death in 1949. The truth is that when Kim Jong Il surfaced as Kim Il Sung’s likely successor at the beginning of the 1970s, the former began to see stepmother Kim Sung Ae and her sons Pyong Il and Young Il as figures who could pose a potential threat to his power base, so he dispatched them into exile or innocuous diplomatic roles.

Having removed these “lateral branches,” Kim ordered the idolization of Kim Jong Suk as a paragon of virtue to be emulated by North Korean women. As a result, she is now hailed as an “anti-Japanese heroine” and an “anti-Japanese female revolutionary,” not to mention “the female general of Mt. Baekdu.”

Of course, the biggest national holidays in North Korea are February 16th, Kim Jong Il’s birthday and April 15th, Kim Il Sung’s birthday, but also December 24th, Kim Jong Suk’s birthday. Performances pledging the citizens’ devotion must be organized by each workplace in celebration of these days.

In truth, before the “March of Tribulation” North Korean citizens were generally proud to participate in such gatherings, and even brought a competitive spirit to them, but when circumstances became difficult they began to consider them burdensome, since participation brought neither fiscal reward nor put food on the table.

However, in North Korea, there is no choice as to whether or not one participates in these events. Failure to participate invites criticism at ideological meetings or political reeducation sessions. A person “invited” to participate really has no choice.

Naturally then, university students studying at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang or similar universities such as Pyongyang Medical University or Pyongyang Light Industrial University celebrate Kim Jong Suk’s birthday and Christmas Eve equally.

After completing the day’s lectures, students have to participate in performances and commemorative events for Kim Jong Suk’s birthday, but after returning to their dorms they grab the opportunity to enjoy food and drink with friends in celebration of Christmas Eve. South Korean and/or Christmas songs accompanied by a guitar are popular at these informal events. “Jingle Bells,” which appeared in the 20-part 1980s film “Nameless Heroes,” a movie which starred four infamous American defectors, and South Korean song “The Maze of Love” are popular.

However, it is important to remember that until the 1990s North Korean citizens did not even know what Christmas was. It was only through movies that they became gradually aware of the existence of the holiday, although it is those with the chance to go on business trips or study or travel abroad who became truly aware that Christmas is a holiday celebrated all around the world on the day of Christ’s birth. No matter how much the North Korean government tries to block the ears and eyes of its citizens, it will no longer be able to block information on something as global as Christmas from the new generation, which is heading towards a new chapter in North Korean history.