A North Korean Thanksgiving

Wednesday 14th September, 2016

This week is Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday. North Koreans recall how they used to spend Chuseok back in their hometowns.

A Korean grave, with an ancestral rites table./New Focus

A Korean grave, with an ancestral rites table./New Focus

Residents of Korea prepare for the annual Chuseok public holiday, a golden opportunity for busy Koreans to spend time with their families and remember their ancestors. As the tradition of hand-preparing food gradually disappears in fast-paced South Korea, it is becoming more acceptable to order ready-made dishes to place on the table of ancestral rites.

The custom of making offerings of food stacked high atop the table is no different for Koreans north of the border, though it was only after the year 2000 that most households could continue the practice, due to the economic nosedive of the mid-1990s Arduous March.

It would have been almost unthinkable to celebrate Chuseok with a lavish feast, when even rations provision for Kim Il Sung’s birthday had stopped. The best people could do in those situations was remove the weeds around the graves of their ancestors with a sharpened scythe.

Kim, who settled in South Korea in April 2015, said that things have changed dramatically since the Arduous March. “The most important public holiday in North Korea is Chuseok now. Political public holidays occur almost monthly in North Korea. They may be called holidays but they’re actually tedious national events that North Korean citizens are forced to take part in, which are physically draining. People have no choice but to participate, in fear of coming under investigation by authorities, but they would not be regarded ‘holidays’.”

He continued, “Chuseok isn’t a political holiday. It’s a day that focuses on ancestry and family relationships. If you think about it, during times as bad as this, when you’re constantly worrying about your own survival, Chuseok is one of the best times of the year. You can forget about the daily humdrum and enjoy yourself, and eat to your fill. Also, the hope that your ancestors will bring you luck also makes Chuseok the most long-awaited day of the year.”

Another escapee, Park said, “I live in South Korea now, and when the day of Chuseok arrives I reminisce about my hometown. There are stores selling fruit everywhere in Seoul, but in North Korea it was a rare treat that we could only enjoy on Chuseok. I remember how it was so expensive that I would worry while working in the markets that my children would eat all the fruit I bought a few days leading up to Chuseok. That’s how rare it was.” She was visibly upset recalling the memory.

Jang, a former ‘spring swallow’ who used to beg on the streets of North Korea, said, “I remember lying down in empty crop fields with my other orphan friends on the night of Chuseok, sharing memories with them. One friend, who was from Hwanghae Province, told a story about the first time they ever ate a banana, a gift from an aunt. Another friend from Pyongsong told a harrowing story about the last time he ate an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem on top. I cried audibly thinking about my deceased parents.

“During the day, the most delicious smells come from every corner of mountains, unlike any other day of the year. Elders drank happily, and look happily drunk, too, singing loudly. You could see children holding food, in each hand, while they ran around and played. When it was about time for lunch, people started to gather at the tombs of their ancestors. Some even invited us to join them. They’d wrap fried pancakes, eggs, rice cake, fish, and other dishes in the inner pages of old newspapers to give us, too. These were the kinds of people who ordinarily chased us beggars away, but on Chuseok, they became charitable, giving people.”

Jang concluded, “I used to wish that it was Chuseok everyday as a child begging on the streets. But now that I live in South Korea, Chuseok is a painful time. I can’t go back to the hometown, and I can’t visit my parents’ grave, and that makes me feel guilty. I’m reminded of this harsh reality as I watch the migration of South Koreans going back to their hometowns to spend time with their families.”


Reporting by Park, Ju-Hee.

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