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Blog: How North Koreans celebrate life’s big occasions


04 April 2018

When people think about North Korea, the first thing that comes to mind is the totalitarian regime, not the 25 million people living there. Yet, these are normal people who are born, live, marry, have children and ultimately die. But what do these special occasions look like? North Korea refugee, John Choi blogs about everyday life in North Korea.

Children

The birth of a baby in North Korea is, of course, a very important event, though it is not without its risks. Until the mid-1990s most babies were born in hospitals. Then North Korea’s economy collapsed and with it the government sponsored medical care – people were no longer able to go to hospitals. Nowadays most babies are born at home, usually without the help of a medical professional. Unless the family is well-off, then they hire a paid doctor or midwife.

Parents hold several milestone birthday parties for their children. The first celebration is ‘Baek-il’ - the 100th day after a child’s birth. This tradition goes back to when childhood diseases were common and the survival rate for children was very low. In order to protect the children, parents refrained from taking the baby outdoors until the 100th day after her or his birth. In olden days Korean people believed that the Baek-il helped protect their child thoughout their life. The 100th day is still celebrated with parents, neighbours and relatives sharing rice cakes (Bakseolgi) at the family home.

First birthday

A child’s biggest celebration in North Korea is their first birthday. The child is dressed in traditional Korean clothing and a special food is prepared for the day. The baby is seated at a table with various items: pens, books, a globe, a calculator, rice, money, The baby picks some items while people take photos. Traditionally, Koreans think that the first or second item picked by a baby foretells their future. For example, if a baby picked the book or pen, then people think a baby will be a scholar. If they pick money or rice, they will be wealthy.

Birthdays

If you Google ‘North Korea birthdays’ you will only find information about the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung (the first leader), Kim Jong-Il (who succeeded his father in 1994) and Kim Jong-Un (the current leader since 2011). How sad is that? The North Korean peoples’ common life or traditional culture is buried under the Kim dynasty.

Birthday celebrations in North Korea are not much different to other countries. Although you wouldn’t go out to a resturant. Instead parents and relatives gather together and eat many types of dishes, such as pork, fish, potatoes, bean sprouts, tofu, spinach, dried wild-plants and seaweed. (Of course, only if you can afford it and if those products are available.) If you’re well-off then you might also invite school friends, neighbours and parents’ friends to celebrate.

However, there is no birthday cake. That only happens in North Korean films and dramas. Birthday cakes are only for the North Korean elite who enjoy a western lifestyle.

Weddings

There is one very important rule if you are getting married in North Korea, you cannot have your wedding on 15 April or 16 February, the birthday of the two former leaders. 

There is no such thing as a bouquet being thrown to the friends at the end of the wedding. Instead, the newlyweds have to bring the flowers to pay respects to the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il immediately after their wedding ceremony. Most couples feel obligated to then take wedding photos at the statue.

North Korea people don’t get married in a town hall or other public place. Usually weddings are held at people’s homes. Ceremonies have kept to the traditional way passed down for generations. Brides and grooms wear traditional Korean dress (Hanbok). It’s an old tradition to have a live hen and rooster present at the ceremony. People stick dates and flowers in the jaws of the hen and red chilli in the beak of the rooster.

Friends, families, neighbours and relatives congratulate the couple on their wedding over food and drink. More affluent families will give money to the happy couple as they start their new life. Unlike in South Korea and other democratic countries, newlyweds don’t go on a honeymoon. There is no such thing as a honeymoon in North Korea. Married couples in this isolated country are expected to return to work the day after their weddings.

Christmas

“Christmas? What is that?” That’s what the average North Korean would say if you were able to ask them about Christmas. Everyone in North Korea knows the three Kims’ birthdays, but they do not know who Jesus Christ is or the story of his birth – except for underground Christians. The regime works hard to ensure information about religious holidays do not enter the country, and its citizens subsequently remain unaware of the celebrations around the world. 

While Christmas is forbidden in North Korea, it is replaced with a slew of nationalistic holidays around the Christmas period. On 24 December, North Korean people celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-Suk, Kim Il-Sung’s first wife.

Kim Jong-Suk is regarded as a revolutionary hero because – according to legend – she made many pilgrimages to her birthplace, Hoeryong, a city in the northeast. In fact, people from from Hoeryong have to sing for the revolutionary idol’s birthday – this is a North Korean Christmas carol.

Three days later on 27 December people are given a day off work for the National Constitution Day. While on New Year’s Day thousands of North Koreans walk in a yearly procession to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, where the preserved body of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are resting.

Funeral

Funerals in North Korea are not like in Western countries. The country has kept with its traditional ways: the body of the deceased stays in the house for three to seven days (usually three days) depending on the season.

The family members of the deceased person clean the body, cut the nails and put on new clothes and shoes. If they can’t afford new clothes, they will just use freshly washed clothes. They will also put a spoon full of rice or a coin in the mouth of the deceased so that in the afterlife, he or she won’t to starve.

Because religion is not allowed, there are no religious funeral rites in North Korea. And there are few cemeteries. Usually, the eldest son will have to find a place in the mountains to bury the deceased. Family members, friends will attend and like in the UK there is usually food provided for the guests. Most households also feel obliged to extend an invitation to their local leaders.

Want to hear more about life in North Korea? This November, bring your friends and come along to Open Doors' annual celebration Standing Strong 2018! Hannah Cho from North Korea will be speaking about her experience of life in a North Korean labour camp, and speakers from Egypt and India will also be sharing their stories of persecution. Standing Strong is taking place at venues across Ireland, Scotland, and in Birmingham. Spaces are limited, so book today for some fantastic discounts!

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