For North Korean citizens, there is no such thing as a “summer vacation” in the same sense that most people imagine. A system of “vacation” does exist, but it is considered to be a time when one is excused from going to work and may stay home doing household chores or go to sell goods at the market.
The closest thing to a true summer vacation in North Korea is the concept of “recreation.” However, even until the end of the 1980s, when the average citizen enjoyed a relatively stable life, the word “recreation” itself was unheard of among ordinary laborers and farmers. There were “recreation centers” for model workers and farmers, but to most average citizens recreation remained a surreal concept.
In North Korea, the first recreation center was founded in Kosung, Kangwon Province. At the time of the Korean War, a center for infirm and injured soldiers was constructed on the orders of Kim Il Sung to raise the morale of the People’s Army.
Subsequently, North Korea built a worker’s recreation center in scenic locations, but only a minority of mid-level officials and laborers chosen as examples to others were able to use them.
However, special employees, such as air force pilots or submarine captains, belong to a class which is treated as the most exceptional in North Korea (notwithstanding officials or members of elite organizations). Before the start of the 21st century, pilots enjoyed considerable privileges. The North Korean state paid special attention to cultivating pilots, showering them with preferential treatment. Goods provided to pilots and their family members were entirely free and a separate compensation-based ration system applied to the whole group.
So, in the North, the closest thing to a “summer vacation” as enjoyed by the people of the free world would inevitably be the “recreation” of pilots. In North Korea, pilots and their family members were permitted vacation once a year and once every two years, respectively. Submarine captains were entitled to similar terms.
Some of the recreation centers used by pilots and their families include the “Galma Recreation Center” in Wonsan, the “Sokhu Recreation Center” in South Hamkyung Province, and the “Jooeul Recreation Center,” among others. All are located near the ocean, and are unparalleled in terms of scenery. In the case of the Galma Recreation Center, there are two buildings housing bedrooms for the visitors standing side-by-side in a shady area, while a separate dining hall and indoor gymnasium can also be found.
Usually, three to four singles and four to five married households from one unit (regiment level) could use the recreation center at any one time.
Single and family rooms are separate. In the former, there are four single beds and in the latter, two double beds. According to regulations, only two children per family are permitted; those who need to bring three or four children have to work out an arrangement with the management office.
In the centers, there is no designated work, but meals and sleeping times must be strictly kept. Breakfast begins at 7:30 A.M., lunch at 12:30 P.M. and dinner at 6 P.M.; naps can only be taken between 2 and 4 P.M. Bedtime is fixed at 10 P.M. Guests have to strictly adhere to these times.
Besides these restrictions, the visitors have the freedom to spend time as they want. Some people play Chinese chess (janggi) and others cards while the rest may choose to head for the beach.
The menus for the week are displayed next to the windows from which the food is served. Soup and bowls of rice are distributed per person and up to four side dishes are distributed to each table (a table consists of two groups).
Until the early 1990s, the most popular food among those served at the recreation centers was bread made in the former Soviet Union. Every morning, a Russian bread called “Khleb,” on which butter or powdered sugar could be put, was provided. The fruit which was given to each person at lunchtime was also popular with the visitors.
The period of recreation enjoyed by pilots was usually 20 days. However, some families, rather than using up all of their days, left the recreation centers in a hurry to visit parents or relatives in their hometowns. Usually, an additional 15 days of vacation was added unto the 20 recreation days, during which many people take trips to their hometowns.
Some diligent wives would continue to work even while in the centers. Surrounding the Galma Recreation Center, located on the shore of the East Sea, or the Sokhu Recreation Center are heaps of seaweed which are washed ashore with the tides. The wives, after washing the seaweed in the ocean water, dried it on the seashore.
Two or three 50-kg bags are barely sufficient for that much dried seaweed. Wives sent these to their in-laws or families with satisfaction.
However, such extravagant levels of recreation for pilots began to disappear in the mid-1990s with the March of Tribulation. Now, even when the state issues recreation permits, people tend to take off for hometowns, not to recreation centers.
Further, with the decline in the national esteem of pilots in recent years and due to the fact that the items which are provided as rations tend to be sold in the markets for additional income, the luxurious lives of the special class are becoming less impressive all the time. Recently, some pilots have even been selling their cigarette rations (one month’s worth) in the jangmadang.
Corruption also afflicts pilots to no small extent. Schools request additional money and products from the children of pilots, due to the popular image of affluence they command.
The sense of deprivation among pilots and family members, who are supposedly among the most revered people in North Korea, has been growing. Their status has indeed decreased over the years; one cannot ignore the fact that the standard of living of private merchants or foreign currency earners has now outpaced that of pilots, who are dangerously dependent on rations for their survival.