[Feature] A North Korean custom retained from ancient Korea

Thursday 28th March, 2013
An old Korean custom that has disappeared from South Korea, remains a North Korean custom

In pre-modern Korea, ordinary people were not allowed to look into the faces of yangban (gentlemen-scholars / aristocrats). When one of these yangban passed by – especially a high-ranking official – the common people had to perform a bow on the ground until the entourage went out of sight.

During the Chosun era, this happened often in Jongro (located in the centre of modern day Seoul). The common people would avoid the area altogether and use special alleys instead, in order to avoid having to bow. The pimat-gol (avoid the entourage lane) arose from this.

In North Korea too, there are more than 35,000 of these pimat-gol. This is a number approximately equivalent to the number of Kim statues in the country.

In order to instill a sense of loyalty and correct attitude towards the Kims, it is prohibited for North Koreans to smoke when in the vicinity of these statues. It is also forbidden for them to cycle – they must carry the vehicle. For this reason, those pushing carts do not dare pass near a statue of Kim. The one exception to the rule is a baby pram whose wheels are clean. This is why some North Koreans can be seen to move goods using prams instead of carts.

Nevertheless, most North Koreans choose to use pimat-gol instead of passing by a statue of Kim. Just like their ancestors, they choose a longer but less foreboding route.

North Korean exile Lee* went to school located near a statue of Kim Il-sung. He described to us the sense of terror that surrounded the area: “There were always secret police and security guards nearby. We could never break any rules, or even think about doing so.”

When a foreign visitor asks a North Korean what he thinks of the Kim statues, they will hear these words: “the arm is stretched forward because it looks to Communism. The weight of the statue is the sum of our hearts.” The statue is supposed to be a sanctified object.

Yet that is what they say on the outside. North Koreans in exile describe how even the memories of Kim statues are frightening that they dread having nightmares about them.

Fortunately, pimat-gol in South Korea have become a relic of the times. In North Korea, however, the ancient custom is retained as the number of Kim statues increase by the day.

North Korean customs

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