Features | Politics | East Asia

North Korea’s Celebrations Amiss

Kim Jong-un looks set to replace his father as North Korea’s leader. But what does another Kim mean for its people?

By Bryan Kay for

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.

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.

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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.

But defector Lee (not his real name), abhors the idea of his own future children preparing for another succession in the state he fled amid starvation 12 years ago, preferring to imagine the fall of the North. ‘Reunification is coming, there is no doubt about it,’ he says.

While many people in his homeland spent Chuseok cleaning up the flood damage ahead of the Workers Party meeting, Lee, whose mother died when he was eight, took part in a series of special events for North Korean refugees at a church in Seoul.

Prior to his 1998 escape, he remembers harvest seasons spent in the impoverished North when the typical seasonal fare of traditional rice cakes was a luxury. In the South, by contrast, food in Chuseok is in abundance as family members flock by the millions to their ancestral home towns—another freedom beyond the hope of most North Koreans.

‘In South Korea, people go to visit all their family members,’ says Lee. ‘In North Korea, we have one family—mother, father and maybe grandparents.’ Meanwhile Hyun, a Korean-American, relates the lamentable difference between the typical day of a South Korean and a Northern defector: ‘For South Koreans, not spending the holiday in a traditional way is a choice. For North Koreans, it is not.’

Lee’s paternal grandfather, a landowner, was executed as an anti-revolutionary and the rest of his family was forcibly shifted to the other side of the country. During such times of strife, he was lucky if Chuseok meant a simple rice cake meal and grandparent worship at home. ‘We were not allowed to visit our hometown,’ he says.

He guesses North Koreans today might be suffering the same degree of desperation and hunger that led him to defect 12 years ago—and may not be concerned with who their next leader is likely to be. ‘In famine, the only focus is on trying to survive,’ he says. ‘You don’t have any expectations.’