North Korea’s Year-End Parties
As the year comes to a conclusion, North Koreans too gather for informal year-end celebrations. North Koreans prefer the term mangyeonhwe to the South Korean songnyeonhwe (there is a slight difference in the meaning of the characters – the former refers to ‘forgetting the past year’ while the latter refers to ‘bidding the year farewell’).
Both North and South Korea’s year-end celebrations mark more or less the occasion in that way. But the North’s context makes their anticipation of the event very different from the South. Because if state holidays are celebrations enforced by the state, the year-end party is one celebrated among people.
We listened to the testimonies of defectors now settled in South Korea, about North Korea’s year-end celebrations.
Location, location, location
South Koreans may choose restaurants or locations with a good atmosphere, though it depends on the company. In North Korea, year-end parties usually occur at the homes of work unit supervisors, or other better-off members of a work unit.
Choosing the homes of wealthier employees as party locations enables work units to cut the costs of holding a celebration. When preparing meals at poorer, less prosperous households, even essentials such as salt need to be newly bought. Wealthier households do not have such problems, and are therefore preferred.
Costs of year-end parties are shared through individual contributions, rather than coming from the workplace supervisor or Party Secretary.
Collection for contributions usually begins a fortnight prior to the event. Those who struggle financially will even borrow to pay a contribution.
This is because many North Koreans regard the year-end party as one of those few days that they can eat and drink their fill, as well as an opportunity to momentarily forget about tribulations and injustices. The annual event is a chance to enjoy life to its fullest, with even a little abandon.
Preparations and distribution of labour
Generally, women do most of the preparation for the party. Food is the basic preparation need at a celebration, so women calculate carefully to produce many meals at a low cost.
In the process of gathering expenses, disputes can arise between the men and women if they are distributed the same amount. This is because women prepare just the food, but men are expected to provide alcohol. In North Korea, in comparison to the price of rice, alcohol is quite dear.
The men, openly acknowledging that women do earn more than men, often need to ask women to humour them. At the end of the day, it is the women who acquiesce. However, it is sometimes settled that in return, the men give the women as many of their favourite sweets and snacks as they wish.
Side dishes and rice are bought some time prior to the celebration, as these products become more expensive and scarce during the run-up to the holiday season. Products such as bean sprouts are bought ten days before and grown at home, to save money.
The parties usually take place at night. During the day, there will be Party meetings at each work unit, with the usual self-criticism sessions. By evening, the women of the work unit will go early to the host house to start preparing the food.
After the final work unit meeting, people head to the venue where food is being prepared. Sometimes many tables can be put together so that all can sit in one place facing each other. Otherwise, separate rooms are prepared with tables for the men and for the women.
Usually, the work unit supervisor delivers a quick address. The standard North Korean line is, “We have solemnly come together to mark the passing of one year spent in the love of our great Supreme Leader. Let’s exert ourselves to carry out our revolutionary duties faithfully in the next year!”
Nevertheless, those sitting at the table already have their hearts and minds set on the food and drink. As soon as the address is over, people reach busily for the bottles of alcohol under the tables.
Though in the past alcohol was enjoyed only by men at such occasions, nowadays the women too, are each given a small glass. Although they may fret that they cannot drink as freely as the men, they wet their lips in consideration of the men’s offers.
Matters of time
Though it can be different at every work unit, year-end parties are generally held at the end of December. Regardless of exact date, the year-end parties are a time to eat delicious food that they would not invest in otherwise, and get very drunk.
The parties can last till the early hours of morning, and there are frequent cases where people continue drinking into the day, still intoxicated. When meals have finished, entertainment or games such as yutnori (a traditional Korean game) or card games similar to poker begin, where people get loud and boisterous.
If people feel peckish during these entertainments, a second serving of leftovers can be brought in, and more drinking ensues. Women pester the men not to drink too much but the men pay no attention. They drunkenly exhort each other to drink without a care, for at least just one day in the year.
Parties begin in the evening, and finish at about one or two in the morning in the earlier cases, but can last until the next day. People wake in the morning and complain of pains because of all the drinking from the night before. The host is obliged to use last night’s leftovers and chilli paste to make them hangover soup.
Entertainment and games
After mealtime, the entertainment begins. In one party game, people sit in a circle and are each given a number, and must clap to a rhythm. The aim of the game is to correctly call out the numbers of the other players without losing the beat. The punishment for getting a number wrong is a song or a dance performance.
Those who are not skilled at the game are continually obliged to sing or dance. After a while, when the game is coming to an end, the organiser of the game begins a performance phase where each of the participants can showcase their talents.
In this game, the most unpopular person is the one who sings boring songs or songs with lengthy lyrics. In North Korea, there are many such tedious revolutionary songs about ideology and comradeship. It’s usually the older members who will insist upon singing any song from start to finish, regardless of how boring the song may be.
Upbeat songs or lively dancing is preferred to revolutionary ballads. And if there are any couples in the group who are thought to have a romantic interest in each other, they are pressured to sing a romantic duet. The end of the year is a rare time for people to openly encourage relationships to blossom.
To accompany the singing, a chopstick inside an empty glass bottle or the banging of bowls and plates create a beat, and some will encourage singers with such noise. The next day, while rinsing the dishes, the host may discover chopstick marks on the side of their plates, or a few cracked bowls.
Reporting by Park Juhee.
Translated by Joyce Williams.