People are so accustomed to a country’s main holiday being their foundation day or independence day that some media and even tour companies that work with the North occasionally report that September 9 in North Korea – their national foundation day – is the country’s “main national holiday.” Like the statement that Kim Yong Nam is somehow the country’s “de-jure head of state,” this sort of became another dubious-but-accepted fact about the country.
In fact, however, it is Kim Jong Un who is the head of state and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s birthdays are the country’s most important holidays. September 9 is not usually given the top priority in the country – as one can see from this piece, which shows how it has been celebrated over the years.
As readers may know, the story behind the foundation of the DPRK is rather hectic, with July 10 and September 8 arguably being better choices for the day – since nothing really happened on September 9, 1948.
Yet, this day was chosen to be the anniversary of the DPRK at a very early point, and the first celebration took place in 1949.
The next year, however, September 9 took place during the Korean War – at the peak of the DPRK’s success, one day before Operation Chromite began. Instead of mass celebrations, the North Korean press merely stated that they should push for the final victory.
Maybe it was this time which started the hectic pattern of celebrations of what was supposed to be the nation’s main holiday.
Indeed, a review of the 69 previous celebrations of September 9 shows that there has been no particular pattern to the celebrations. Sometimes the celebration were rather massive – like in 1956, a few days after Kim Il Sung defeated the opposition to his rule, or in 1958. In other years, state newspaper Rodong Sinmun may have limited itself only to an editorial about the DPRK going from victory to victory – like it did during the War.
Some traits of the celebrations reflected the spirit of the age with which the holiday coincided. In early years, the Rodong Sinmun also mentioned that September 9 is also a national holiday in Bulgaria, which marked the fall of the pro-German cabinet of Konstantin Muraviev in 1944. Later this fact was omitted, of course.
In the 1970s, the celebrations were given an international focus, telling about foreigners glorifying Kim Il Sung – reflecting both his personality cult and the DPRK’s attempt to promote itself as the international center of true socialism.
Finally, perhaps the most important event which happened on the 9th of September in North Korea was the introduction of the Juche calendar in 1997. September 8, 1997 was followed by September 9, Juche 86 (1997). The calendar was created to commemorate the birth of Kim Il Sung in 1912. Announced at the third anniversary of Kim’s death, it was to be implemented later in order for the entire country to adjust to it.
As for ordinary North Koreans, they don’t have any particular image of September 9. “If there are some celebrations in the vicinity, we attend them,” one North Korean woman told me. “If there are none, we naturally don’t. It is not a big holiday.”
Parades and diplomacy
The Kim Jong Il era also saw regular military parades held on the date (here is, for example, a video from 1998). Under Kim Il Sung, civilian demonstrations were more common. The change was a natural reflection of more militaristic decorum of the era of the second Kim, aiming to raise the prestige – and loyalty – of the military. Participants were usually rewarded with things like automatic admission to the Party without a normally mandatory 1-year candidacy period.
In the late years, the holiday came to play a diplomatic role. Many of the country’s holidays are extremely politicized, such as birthdays of the Kims or the Party foundation day. Thus merely attending them for many foreign guests can be perceived a gesture of support towards the regime.
Yet, September 9 is not about the Kims or the Party – it is about the entire country. Thus, this holiday gained diplomatic value. The Russian Embassy, for example, always sends delegations for September 9, but never to the Party foundation day of October 10, since Russia is not a Communist country. But the Moscow example could be followed by other nations, too, reasoned Pyongyang.
Thus, it seems that for these celebrations, Pyongyang puts great importance on international guests – and it seems that Washington tried to quietly sabotage this campaign. It appears that the United States mostly prevailed, as the most important guest – Xi Jinping – is almost certainly not coming. So instead of loudly pronouncing that China is on their side, this is likely to be just another holiday.
Now, what shall we expect this Sunday, September 9?
A parade, naturally, lasting for a few hours. Representatives of all five military branches – Army, Navy, Air, Strategic, and Special Forces will be participating. Other events, as found by NK News, include mass rallies of North Koreans, Pyongyang residents, as well “The Glorious Country” mass games, the torch parade, and other celebratory events.
The world would probably focus its attention on the ICBMs in the military parade, so it would be wise for Pyongyang to refrain from showing them – as the presence of the Hwasong-15 could be taken as a sign that no disarmament is forthcoming.
Of course, this prospect is already in doubt, but it is in North Korea’s interest to at least maintain the illusion of progress.
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