North Korea's Celebrations Amiss
Image Credit: Kok Leng Yeo

North Korea's Celebrations Amiss


Last Wednesday’s Korean Thanksgiving Day, Chuseok, meant entirely different things for John Lee and Mingi Hyun.

The most important folk holiday on the South Korean calendar, Chuseok is celebrated annually each autumn with families gathering for traditional ancestor worship. But for 35-year-old North Korean refugee Lee, this year’s holiday was a time of quiet contemplation on his solitary existence as a Seoul-based defector. For Hyun, 32, on the other hand, it was mostly party-time, a reflection of a growing tendency among young South Koreans to do things their own way.

Over in North Korea, the current scene is likely very different. Especially today, individual family importance and socializing is far from people’s minds, swept aside instead for devotion to the principal members of the first family. For by most analysts’ reckonings, this is the day Kim Jong-il’s successor, his son Jong-un, will be anointed. And here, especially at such a momentous time, the ruling Kim clan would maintain its stature as the utmost figures of worship and the only permissible deities in the country.

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The North Korean Workers Party is scheduled to gather in the capital Pyongyang for its first conference in 30 years—with speculation rife that the rare event may herald the early stages of the process by which Jong-un will take over as its leader. The last time the party convened was in 1980, when members met to rubber-stamp the succession of the ‘Dear Leader’ to his father Kim Il-sung, the founder of the communist country.

But this gathering—originally scheduled for early September but then postponed—comes against the backdrop of severe flooding after Typhoon Kompasu virtually paralyzed many parts of the country, killing dozens. Already reportedly suffering severe food shortages, recent defectors paint a picture of an uneasy populace struggling to survive—with some even comparing the situation to 1995 when the devastating North Korean famine that claimed the lives of millions was at its peak.

This year, the intersection of the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, took on an even greater significance—it coincided with the 61st anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk, another figure of state-directed worship in the North.

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