Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Times They Are a Changing

It pays big dividends to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that North Korea is an unchanging totalitarian monolith. It isn't, of course, and here to prove it is the story of modern Chuseok, the three-day Korean traditional harvest festival which finishes today, the 23rd, thanks to the two female defectors who struggle, day in and day out, to bring the reality of North Korea to you over at The Daily NK.

For those who can provide it, Chuseok food costs almost as much as an average month's food for the family, requiring a few kilograms of “ddeok” (rice cakes), a kilogram of rice, a good amount of pork, three or four bottles of liquor and some other vegetables. So, for those people who find it hard to get by trading in the jangmadang or farming a small piece of land, Chuseok can be a tough time; more goods must be sold or a housewife may resort to helping cadres cook their own Chuseok feast to earn additional money.

The most irritating Chuseok chore for modern North Koreans is gathering water to prepare food. Even in Pyongyang and other big cities, tap water is not clean and electricity is not consistent, so people have to go and get water from local mountains. Ironically, while the authorities do tend to provide electricity on the night of Chuseok, on the previous day, when people actually need it, there is none. Therefore, people say that carrying water is half their Chuseok work.

Even though the main Chuseok event is a visit to an ancestor's grave, the North Korean authorities have pushed the people to embrace cremation, ironic given the fact that Kim Jong Il spent a rumored $800 million on not cremating his father. However, the fact is that only kotjebi, homeless people, are cremated by the authorities; those who are able to choose still bury their relatives.

In North Korea, cemeteries are generally found near an arterial route on hills in the suburbs of cities. In the early 2000s, Kim Jong Il handed down a decree to reduce the scale of such burial mounds, after foreign visitors reportedly saw packed graves and asked whether or not they were the victims of the late 1990s’ famine.

Naturally, Chuseok is a high season for traders, just as it is in the South. In advance of the big day, traders, especially sellers of rice cake, do very well. Even a few years ago, these rice cakes were sold arranged on plates, but now they are sold on styrofoam platters in various quantities.

What they do not sell before Chuseok, they try to sell on the streets around grave sites.

The cemetery is a good place for other traders, too; they go there to peddle liquor, cigarettes, candy, ddeok, donuts and such like. They also sell home-brew corn makgoli, but this is done in secret because the selling of alcohol is banned. Some even sell home-brew beer made with barley grown privately.

Another lucrative trade is in water. Budding traders without a refrigerator pay a lucky, refrigerator owning neighbor to freeze water a few days ahead of Chuseok, and then they sell it with ice.

One of the newest temporary businesses is security for bicycles. Those with a bicycle will come to the cemetery on it, carrying food and probably family members as well, but the bicycle cannot be brought up to the grave. As a key source of prosperity, the bicycle must be kept securely.

Barbers also gather there. Of course, people want to get a trim before visiting their ancestors, so the barbers cut their hair on the streets. Just a little more money can buy a hair wash as well.

On a less joyful note, thieves and kotjebi aim for the multitude of empty houses.

After enjoying the food, drink and catching up with family and friends, people tend to head home at around 4 P.M. Naturally, some things are common wherever one goes; the men get drunk and the women struggle to get them home safely. Some fail; a huge number of drunken men can be found on the streets and in the allies on Chuseok night...

And that is how today's North Korean people spend the only day without politics, Chuseok.

Not an endlessly entertaining time, but a good step up from round after round of political lectures, that's for sure.

Happy Chuseok!

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