For much of North Korean history, this Friday’s holiday could not be openly celebrated in North Korea, because then-leader Kim Il Sung regarded Lunar [Chinese] New Year as a “vestige of feudal society.” Instead, the North Korean people
were allowed a single day off over the alternative New Year, which was based on the
However, in 1989 the North Korean state and media started to energetically emphasize Kim Jong Il’s deep reserves of consideration and care for the North
Korean people, and thus Lunar New Year came to be openly celebrated once more. Despite
the fact that many ordinary families still suffer chronic food insecurity, most enjoy the holiday, though the quality of a given family celebration depends to
a great extent on relative purchasing power.
As in South Korea and other parts of Asia,
food is one of the defining elements of the North Korean Lunar New Year’s celebration.
Where North Koreans prepare small rice cakes called songpyeon, South Koreans traditionally eat rice cake soup; but both countries
treat the holiday as a moment for families to gather and pay their respects to ancestors.
The holiday itself spans three or four days,
but preparations often begin a month in advance. Though power
shortages and security matters render long-distance travel extremely trying in
the North, meaning that many do not make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns
to perform ancestral rites, families enjoy the day together at home to the greatest extent possible. A single such
upper-middle class family of four might consume in the vicinity of 4kg of rice, 2kg
of flour, 3kg of starch flour or noodles, 2kg of pork, as well as oil and alcohol. Dishes made
of beans or tofu are highly sought after, also.
On the morning of Lunar New Year’s Day
itself, men must go to exchange greetings with neighboring households. Women do not partake of the former tradition, as it
is still widely believed that bad luck will befall a household for the coming year
if the first New Year’s visitor to the home is female. Instead,
women are more likely to pass the time by playing a traditional Korean board
game called Yut Nori, as well as sharing food, singing and dancing. Children focus on bowing to their elders.
However, the laughter and chatter that
accompanies Lunar New Year’s celebrations cannot be enjoyed universally. As one should expect, just as there are plenty of people for whom food is in abundance, so many others are driven to crime out of hunger. Unfortunate,
and unwelcome, guests target the family gatherings; homeless families and kkotjebi, or street children, must seize the
chance presented by the special day to obtain both food and firewood where they can.
One defector who maintains regular contact
with family in the North reported on this year’s scenario for his family to
Daily NK. “My eldest brother has received his distribution of alcohol and pork,
so he will celebrate properly,” he said. “But my aunt and cousins in the countryside
don’t have any special food this time around. They’ll just make do with a plain