When you see the pictures and videos coming out of Pyongyang today, you might be surprised by what you see. But I don’t want these pictures to make you think that North Korea is just a land of robots who are all forced to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday each year. You see, celebrating the Great Leader’s birthday has long been a huge event in North Korea, and the only way I can help you understand it is by suggesting that you think about how Christmas is celebrated in the West.
In many countries, remembering the story of Jesus Christ is an important part of celebrating Christmas. Well, in North Korea it’s the same – except we instead remember and celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. While Westerners remember the story of Bethlehem and the mysterious birth of Jesus Christ, in North Korea we remember the birth of Kim Il Sung and his heroic feats against the Japanese colonial powers. And just like in the West with Christmas Day, the majority of North Koreans are not expected to work on Kim Il Sung’s birthday – it’s a national holiday, after all!
Kim Il Sung’s birthday is a time of the year I have a lot of fond memories of. Rations would always increase, there would be lots of movies and documentaries shown on TV and in the theaters, and special operas would take place like “Flower Girl” or “Sea of Blood.” It really was – and still is – a special festival.
Although I didn’t really understand what the celebrations were for when I was a young girl, I still have vivid memories about how beautiful Pyongyang was around that time of year. Flowers would be in bloom and there was always great weather. It was always sunny on the big day – in fact, I don’t remember it raining once on April 15 in any of the 15 years I lived there!
Of course, I have stronger memories of the festival in my older years.
As I recall, celebrations really started the day before. We’d always get a half-day off from school – and later university – usually enjoying a big meal similar to what you might experience on Christmas Eve in the West.
The next day we would wake up and get ready for the main celebration, which would always take place in the early evening at Kim Il Sung square. It would be here that the big dances would take place, and where a special display would be mounted to show Kim Il Sung’s age in huge lettering in the center of the square.
As our father was a personal friend of Kim Il Sung, the President personally invited my brother, sister and I to take part in the April 15 celebrations every year. This meant that until I left North Korea in 1994, I would always get to watch the main celebrations in a special area with VIPs and other foreign dignitaries – right next to the stand that Kim Il Sung himself would watch the show from.
For others in Pyongyang, getting a spot to either dance in the square or watch from the sides would involve expressing interest weeks in advance to your local neighborhood leader. And if you were picked to dance in the main square for the event, you would be expected to conduct lots of practice ahead of the big day (though it was nothing like what people have to do to prepare for the Arirang Mass Games).
After we were all seated, Kim Il Sung would come to the square and officially open the celebrations at 7 p.m. He’d normally stay for about half an hour to an hour and watch the dancing. But although he never hung around long, the show would keep going well after his departure. Although when Kim Il Sung was in attendance the event was relatively formal and dances were meticulously planned, after he’d leave we’d all spill out from the stands into the middle of the square to join the dancers. Then there would be fireworks – which I always hated due to the noise – and the night would wrap up at about 10:30 or 11 p.m.
“Although when Kim Il Sung was in attendance the event was relatively formal and dances were meticulously planned, after he’d leave we’d all spill out from the stands into the middle of the square to join the dancers.”
Throughout my time living in Pyongyang my brother was very well known to the local community. He was so much taller than everyone else, and was very outgoing compared to the North Koreans. Of course, despite the pomp and grandeur of the celebrations, nothing would stop my brother from taking things into his own hands on the big day. I vividly remember him adding his own style to the party once by going into one of the circles of Korean dancers to break-dance: everyone’s jaw dropped in Kim Il Sung square when they saw him starting doing this unique form of dancing to North Korean music. He was a bit of a show-off like that, and spontaneous too.
WHY THEY ADMIRE KIM
What did ordinary people think of the day?
I only learned about Kim Il Sung’s role in North Korean history when I went to junior school. Of course, as a 7 year old the early things I learned were just stored in my memory. They didn’t mean much at all. It wasn’t until middle school when I really started to develop an understanding of why so many North Koreans admired him.
But while people in the West and even Russia have always looked down on North Korea and their infatuation for the founding leader, I would argue that from my experience between 1978 to 1994, the emotions shown towards Kim Il Sung – not just around his birthday – were very, very real.
Everyone was taught to respect Kim Il Sung and people admired him, as he was a charismatic leader that was only too happy to talk to the people during his famous on-the-spot guidance visits. But why did North Koreans like him so much – and want to celebrate his life on April 15? I think its due to 유교 사상 – what you’d call “Confucian thought” in English.
“Everyone was taught to respect Kim Il Sung and people admired him, as he was a charismatic leader that was only too happy to talk to the people during his famous on-the-spot guidance visits”
As you might know, northeast Asian countries have a very difference society and culture from the West. For centuries, Confucian thought prevailed in Japan, China and Korea. But while it’s become less important in China due to steps taken during the Cultural Revolution, Confucian thought is still very much a part of the national psychology in Korea and Japan. And although Japan and South Korea are relatively modern societies compared to North Korea, in the DPRK – which is a very conservative society – the culture of Confucianism is still very strong.
Confucianism places significant importance in respecting one’s elders, ancestors and parental figures. And in North Korea Kim Il Sung was considered the father figure of society. He played a critical role in fighting the Japanese and had done a great deal to contribute to the country’s rapid rebuilding after the Korean War. Therefore it’s not hard to see why – from a Confucian perspective – so many people respected him.
“In North Korea Kim Il Sung was considered the father figure of society”
To move ahead in society, it made sense for people to respect him. That’s why you see all those statues of Kim Il Sung throughout North Korea. People wanted to build them to show their respect for the head of state, knowing that doing so would help them also get ahead in society. And so, when it was Kim Il Sung’s birthday, the admiration shown by the people was real. This is why it makes little sense to try and understand North Korean views of Kim Il Sung from a non-Confucian view point.
NO QUESTIONS ASKED
Because of the system, people in the 1980s simply didn’t question Kim Il Sung or the party. There are propaganda signs all around North Korea that used to say things like, “What the party decides, we do.” This really summed up the national psychology towards the leadership during those days. While people might have questioned each other in the sciences or mathematics, it was out of the question to do so for issues related to politics or the celebration of Kim Il Sung each year.
When I left North Korea I started to realize that to understand any country, you need to do so through the eyes of the people that live there. If you don’t, a lot of things won’t ever make sense. When I went to America for the first time, for example, I wanted to see and verify for myself the true reality of the U.S. – and of course it was different from everything I’d been taught in North Korea. I learned a lot from this experience and it showed me the importance of not judging others people for the way they act. Everyone is brought up differently, and in North Korea respect for Kim Il Sung has for decades been a central part of the society’s psychology.
I don’t know what North Koreans think of Kim Jong Un now. Maybe their feelings for him are not as authentic as they were for Kim Il Sung when I lived in the DPRK. But whatever the situation, people will be sure to have a good time on April 15 in North Korea.
When you see the pictures and videos coming out of Pyongyang today, you might be surprised by what you see. But I don't want these pictures to make you think that North Korea is just a land of robots who are all forced to celebrate Kim Il Sung's birthday each year. You see, celebrating the Great Leader's birthday has long been a huge event in North Korea, and the only way I can help you understand
Monique was born in Equatorial Guinea and grew up in Pyongyang, North Korea. She graduated at the University of Light Industry, with a BA as a Textile Engineer. Since leaving North Korea, Macias has been working as a fashion designer in countries including Spain, South Korea, and the U.S. Macias recently wrote a book about her life in North Korea which will soon be translated in to English.