Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Lunar New Year in North Korea

Happy Lunar New Year, everyone. (If you were expecting greetings related to that other made-up holiday, go elsewhere.) As a sebaetdon, the Korean gives you again Mr. Joo Seong-Ha of Nambuk Story, with a story about the Lunar New Year in North Korea.

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For a long time, North Korea regarded January 1st to be the true seol [TK: "new year"], not the Lunar New Year. Lunar New Year was designated as a holiday in 1989, so it has been only about 20 years for North Korea to count Lunar New Year as a holiday. Therefore, there are still many North Koreans who visit people to give the sebae [TK: "new year's bow"] on January 1st. But as time passes, Lunar New Year is increasingly gaining importance.

In the early morning of seol, students' voices are the first thing that wakes the morning of cities and villages. Groups of students visit their teachers to give sebae at the teachers' house. And men with flushed face visit from house to house with a bottle of liquor in their pocket, also visitng to give sebae. The so-called "seol ration" disappeared as North Korea entered the March of Difficulties in mid-1990s, but previous to that, the government would provide a bottle of liquor, a few hundred grams of oil, a few hundred grams of pork per person and some candies because of seol.

In a scarce economy, one bottle of rationed liquor is big. Stick this bottle in the pocket, and visit the officers' house, elders' house and friends' house. Because liquor is scarce, one can make a showing at a lot of places with just one bottle. Pour one glass, wish good health for the new year, and move onto another house with the same bottle. North Korean liquor bottles are about 500 ml, so one bottle pours out about ten glasses. So one can visit ten houses with that. Even after the March of Difficulties began, homes in North Korea usually save up a few bottles of liquor for seol. 

Including my hometown, there are some regions where it is considered to be bad luck for a woman to be the first visitor of the new year. It is not as if women are turned away, but they might receive some frowns if they are the first visitor. At any rate, women generally do not have the time to roam around since they are busy preparing food for the visitors starting the day before seol. But my home was an exception. For ten years previous to my departure, it was a woman who first visited my house every year. I cannot say why that was, but not just one but more then ten housewives were coming and going in the morning. But my family was nonetheless one of the most well-to-do in our village.

North Korea does not have the custom of having dumpling soup as South Koreans do on seol. [TK: JSH probably meant "rice cake soup", but the post says dumpling soup.] Instead, they make and eat songpyeon [TK: a type of half moon-shaped rice cake.] There are also other preparations for jesa [TK: memorial for ancestors] on the morning of seol.

Officers are a little busier, because they must pay their respect to a Kim Il-Sung statue. City people have it easier, since a statue is close to them. Rural villagers have to make a trip to the city to place a flower basket at the statue. Of course, the flower basket has to be prepared before seol. The Propaganda Bureau for each city or district takes note of each flower basket before the statue and assess the loyalty based on the effort that was put into making the basket. So officers are in a competition to make the better flower basket than others. 

In a rural village, officers such as the Village Labor Party Secretary, Chairman of the Management Committee, Head of Operations Bureau ride with the flower baskets on a car or a tractor that belongs to the commune farm to visit the city. The people who have business in the city would circle around to hitch a ride. Once arriving at Kim Il-Sung's statue, the flower baskets and bouquets made in nearby places are already surrounding the statue by four or five rings.

The statue, overflowing with flower baskets and bouquets, serve as a popular photo spot. Young people and students would crowd the area and take a picture in front of the statue. In North Korea, there are not too many places to go on seol other than visiting the statue and taking pictures. Young women would dress up and take a snapshot with flowers in the background, since there is no other place to see the flowers except around the statue at any rate. 

Usually guys come out with guys, and girls come out with girls. Couples actually refrain from coming into this type of crowd, because it is embarrassing to have a dating rumor spread at workplace. North Korea still has this kind of innocence. (Or is it corniness?) So there are few couples who roam around the statue. The few who do require a significant amount of courage. Especially, linking arms is an act of reckless suicide, as it would brand you as a "player". Personally, I don't think I have ever seen anyone doing that.

Back when there was only film cameras, the picture before the statue was a very important and momentous keepsake, but the value of color photos decreased as digital cameras are widespread recently.

It is also a common sight to see the lonely single men, who form packs of wolves looking for a target to hit on, craning their necks and circling the statue grounds which have suddenly become more beautiful. Once the target is set, they would try their best to follow and move onto the next stage. Since most people in North Korea walk from places to places, it is much easier to follow someone compared to Korea.

Once sebae is over and the statue is visited, it is free time after lunch. But often the electricity would not be available even in seol. For the last ten years before I left North Korea, it was rare to have power all day on seol. When it does come intermittently, people call it "generosity electricity." One could watch television if the generosity electricity comes in, but there is nothing to do otherwise. Grownups would then gather around to play cards. Previous to mid-1990s they used to play a game called myeongju, but for the ten years since then the game called heungsu (or susuki) that came in from China overtook North Korea. Around four to six people can play heungsu, and it ends up being that for four players, the first place eats, the second place delivers, the third place prepares the food and the fourth place pays for the liquor. Usually the ranks are determined after about two to three hours of play, and players eat and drink after each round. So sometimes, North Koreans would refer to seol-nal ("New Year's Day") to sul-nal ("Liquor Day").

I often miss all this, as rustic as it is. The party where the close neighbors gather, laugh, eat and drink is incomparable to Korea's company dinner where people's ranks are considered even as they drink.

Students would often start up their own drinking party on seol among their friends when they are around 5th grade in middle school (around 15~16 years old.) They would hang out at the house where the adults would let this slide, but they do not have much more to do either other than playing cards. South Koreans would be outraged at the tender young children smoking and drinking at age 15~16, but in North Korea there are many parents who consider their children of that age to be adults, since they would live away from home for ten years in two years while serving their military duty. I myself learned to smoke and drank at age 14. But it was not as if I was a delinquent. I did well in school, and teachers liked me. I finally quit smoking on last year's seol.

Originally the Solar New Year would receive a two-day break and the Lunar New Year would receive a one-day break, but I hear that recently the situation is reversed. There is no long holiday in North Korea. Apparently it thinks that the people gets lazy if they do nothing for an extended period of time. If seol comes on Saturday, you get two days off. There was one time when seol was a Friday, and there was a lot of fuss about how we received three day break thanks to Kim Jong-Il's generosity.

Although Lunar New Year is gaining importance, but traditions take deep roots. I am told that there still is not really a seol atmosphere on Lunar New Year. Also, for hungry people, there is not much to a holiday -- a holiday is a day when they eat well. In other words, a few bottles of liquor and fatty food are equal to a holiday. Even getting those little things in a scarce household requires an efficient distribution of resources. In short, it is a matter of choice between using them on the Solar New Year or on the Lunar New Year. I am told that the people who used to spending those resources on Solar New Year are increasingly switching to Lunar New Year, when they get two days off. I think that people are celebrating Lunar New Year more because they are eating well on that day, not that they are eating more on Lunar New Year because they celebrate it.

Even in South Korea, I am still not used to Lunar New Year. In my heart, Solar New Year feels like the real seol. Maybe North Koreans need to get to the better part of the world and get into the mass of  homeward-bound crowd in order to get into the mood of Lunar New Year. Yesterday's forecast said today would have snow and low temperature, leading to bad traffic jams on freeways. But it was nice to see the Jongro street this morning with neither snow nor ice. Just for a little bit, I got in my car and imagined heading home. Just imagining it makes me happy.

Everyone who is visiting home, please drive safely and hope you have a great trip. May you receive many fortunes in the New Year.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. really interesting. as always, thanks for translating..

  2. Thanks for translating was very interesting....


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