Chuseok, North Korean Style

In North Korea, Chuseok was designated an “ethnic festival” in 1986 by Kim Jong Il and became a national holiday in 1988. As is the custom in both Koreas, North Korean citizens prepare sacrificial food, if circumstances allow, for the shrines of ancestors.

That being said, after the “March of the Tribulation” of the mid-1990s, North Korean Chuseok changed dramatically. Before this, a slight difference existed between officials and average citizens, but due to regular rations and relatively stable food prices, most people had room to celebrate the holiday.

But when the gap between rich and poor began to widen in the 1990s, the ways in which the various classes celebrated Chuseok began to diverge.

In North Korea, there are not too many people who seek out their ancestral tombs at Chuseok, due to the fact that most people have neither the means nor the freedom to travel. And the further one’s place of residence is from one’s hometown, the more difficult it becomes to pay respects to one’s ancestors.

But North Korean middle and elite classes can travel relatively easily. Officials and the wealthy classes are able to borrow cars or borrow work vehicles. Those without vehicles use their personal connections to visit tombs.

In the past, the upper-classes, which could afford to eat three meals of rice until 2005, would put on a display of visiting family tombs after borrowing cars for the Chuseok holiday, but recently this can be seen less frequently. Based on the price of gasoline in North Korean markets as of September, 2009, 210,000 won is needed for the fuel to travel from Hoiryeong to Chongjin alone.

Even in the North, basic items such as alcohol, rice cakes, fish, fruit and vegetables are placed on memorial tables, but there are essential differences with regards to alcohol. Foreign-currency earners or high-level officials who receive significant bribes are able to drink wine or foreign liquor. Also, affluent people living in regions near the border can afford to purchase a kind of Chinese-made liquor, “baijiu,” which is sold for 10,000~30,000 won. Average civilians can only afford corn liquor which costs 500~1,000 won per 500g.

The type of food which is the most burdensome for most people is fruit. The upper-classes usually place fruits, pears, pineapples and bananas from China on the table. The average citizens will simply place North Korean apples on the table.

In addition, at least two kilograms of rice is needed for rice-cakes and meals.

When looking at current prices in North Korea’s markets, it can be surmised that at least 50,000 North Korean won is needed to prepare Chuseok as well as one might like. The price of a kilogram of rice exceeds 2,000, while the price of pork is 5,000 won per kilogram and 2,000 won for one mackerel. Also, preparing tofu, eggs, radish etc requires a not insignificant amount of money.

Nowadays, the daily average earnings for a North Korean merchant are 5,000 won. This amount buys two kilograms of corn, which is enough to keep a family alive. It is never easy to give several thousand won to the memorial table.