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View more articles by Kim Yoo-sung
Kim Yoo-sung is an Ask a North Korean contributor who left Gil-joo County of Hamkyungbuk-do, DPRK in 2005
Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Jung-hee in Seoul asks:
South Koreans just celebrated Chuseok. How is North Korean Chuseok different?
Generally, I think North Koreans celebrate Chuseok pretty much in the same way South Koreans do. Yet, I’ve noticed some differences.
First, the similarities: The first thing North Koreans do on Chuseok is to pay respects at the graves of our ancestors. Of course, we bring carefully prepared food to the graves. We remove weeds from the graves and sweep around them in order to keep the graves tidy. When the whole process of this ritual is done at the graves, we have lunch together and then say goodbye to our deceased ancestors.
When we arrive back at the house, we share a wide variety of food with our family and relatives, just like South Koreans do. Over the table, we ask each other how they have been and share a few drinks. We play cards and watch TV together just like South Koreans. Also, we don’t forget to share our delicious food with our relatives. I heard some people living in big cities like Pyongyang go sightseeing or visit amusement parks with their families. But those of us living in small towns spend Chuseok with our families at home.
In the North, people usually live very close to their parents
So far, North Koreans seem to spend Chuseok just like South Koreans, right? Well, there are a few differences. In the North, people weed graves on the day of Chuseok. But South Koreans go to weed the graves days beforehand. In the South, people drive all the way to their parents’ houses during Chuseok and that’s why the highways get extremely congested during the holiday. In the North, people usually live very close to their parents. Therefore, they don’t have to drive for hours to visit their parents like South Koreans do.
It wouldn’t work well if they did live far away, because the freedom to travel does not exist in North Korea. In South Korea, you have freedom to go almost anywhere you want to. In North Korea, you need to have a permit issued by the police in order to travel to other parts of North Korea. You can get such a permit by paying a bribe to the police. Therefore, people who don’t have money can’t acquire that kind of permit slip because they can’t afford to bribe the police. No matter where you travel on the roads or by train, you need to have one of those permits to get to your destination.
So it is almost inconceivable for North Koreans to travel to a relative’s house if it is far away. In the South, it would cost you around $200 to pay for your train tickets and Chuseok gifts for your relatives. But in North Korea, it costs three-four times as much just to travel to visit relatives. Now, some of you may wonder: “Can’t you just go by car?” That’s not so easy. You also have to obtain a permit in order to own a car.
North Korean roads are not as developed as the roads in South Korea, either. Gas is also very costly in North Korea.
There are so many officers who just want to get you into trouble so that they can receive a bribe
My wife’s father owned a successful business in North Korea. So, they could afford to own a car and drive. But, most people can’t even imagine getting to their relatives by driving their cars. One friend of mine who came from same hometown as my wife told me that my wife’s family was the richest in town and everyone knew that. So, unless you’re super rich like my wife’s family, you can’t even imagine driving your own car in North Korea. There are so many officers who just want to get you into trouble so that they can receive a bribe.
Now, you may wonder why North Koreans don’t just go by train. There isn’t much electricity in the North. In the South, you can travel from Seoul to Pusan within several hours by bullet train. But in the North, it would take a month to travel the same distance. And even if you have the money and time to do so, you still need permission to travel. There are police officers on trains who check on everyone to make sure they have an appropriate permit. Of course, even if you don’t have a permit slip, you can still travel without one – but only if you bribe the officer on the train. Again, you’ll need money to bribe officers.
This Chuseok, since our relatives are still in the North and we didn’t have any to visit in the South, we spent one night and two days on vacation at a resort in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi Province. We had such a great time at the resort in Gapyeong. But when we were on the way back to our home in Seoul, we really missed our old home in North Korea. Although we had a lot of fun at the resort on Chuseok, we would’ve been a lot happier if we could’ve spent our Chuseok at our home in North Korea. I’m not too sure about when the unification will happen and what kind of impact it will have. But when unification occurs, a population of 75 million Koreans will be able to freely travel between Pyongyang and Seoul over Chuseok. After all, Chuseok is one traditional holiday both North and South Koreans celebrate even today.
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Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld