Chuseok, a Holiday with (Almost) No Politics

Korea’s traditional Thanksgiving holiday, Chuseok is the only time when the North Korean people can spend time with family and remember ancestors without any political pressure.

Since traditional holiday customs were said to run counter to the teachings of “socialism”, the North Korean authorities abandoned national holidays entirely until 1972. However, when inter-Korean dialogue started in 1972, the authorities started allowing people to visit their ancestors’ graves, and then in 1989 they finally designated Chuseok a national holiday.

So in North Korea there are now two kinds of holiday: state holidays, which includes Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays and the founding days of the regime and Party; and national holidays, which means January 1st New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, January 15th by the lunar calendar and Chuseok, which falls on August 15th by the lunar calendar.

During both solar and lunar New Year holidays, city folk are required to worship Kim Il Sung before the statue or shrine in each city and town, and there are no family events. However, Chuseok is a little different.

On this day, the city streets are awash with exciting holiday atmosphere even early in the morning. In major cities like Pyongyang, Pyongsung and Chongjin, public transport starts running at 4 A.M. in order to allow people to travel to ancestors’ graves or relatives’ homes. Special trains and buses are even laid on for Chuseok transit.

The trains, “Red Star,” were made by the Kim Jong Tae Electric Locomotive Factory to carry 80 people per car in a seven car formation. Produced to help city workers commute, they normally do not run due to a lack of electricity. However, for one day during the Chuseok holiday, they run along the railroad tracks within 20kms of the city between 4 and 9 in the morning, and 6 and 9 in the evening.

In Chongjin, meanwhile, extra buses called “Jipsam” are run to help the migrating masses. Jipsam buses, which were made in 1989, are named after a city in North Hamkyung Province which Kim Jong Suk, Kim Jong Il’s mother, visited in 1949, and which means, “The three gathered” and sought the way to revolution. It speaks of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk and their son, Kim Jong Il.

Of course, even though the authorities run extra buses and trains, they are not sufficient, so buses and trucks belonging to factories and enterprises are pressed into service to earn a profit at this time of high demand.

Therefore, at Chuseok the city streets are packed with all kinds of vehicles.

However, the lower classes leave for their ancestors’ graves before sunrise on foot carrying food, bottles of liquor and a tool to cut down the weeds around the grave. Regardless, for kids it is a real holiday and a good chance to have a picnic with parents.

Of course, Chuseok is spent differently depending on whether one is a cadre or a member of the general populace.

A cadre’s house at Chuseok could easily be mistaken for one in South Korea, with the smell of Chuseok food spreading all over the neighborhood and visitors dropping by all day long.

For cadres it is a significant business, and a chance to curry favor. Relatives and lower cadres visit higher cadres’ homes to sample rare holiday food and ask for private or political consideration. Sometimes it is a chance to try and secure a job for a son or daughter.

While there is officially no special distribution from Pyongyang for Chuseok, powerful cadres are provided with food, liquor, meat and daily necessities through the accounts section of the provincial committee of the Party.

However, cadres do face one extra Chuseok burden: group worship of Kim Il Sung before the statue of the nation’s founder. Names are checked, and only after the required reverence do cadres head for their ancestors’ graves. This is done because Kim Il Sung is supposed to be revered as “the progenitor of the Kim Il Sung nation and the father of the whole people.”

Chuseok is also a day when cadres can parade their political power. While the people squeeze onto packed buses and trucks or simply walk to graves, cadres can sweep to their destinations in luxury German vehicles.

At least $300 is spent on the Chuseok holiday by members of the cadre class, including that for serving guests with decent food, gas to visit ancestors’ graves etc, and that is without the cost of embezzled materials from the provincial committee or work places.