Welcome back, NK News readers, to our Ask a North Korean. And also, Happy Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)!
The three-day Chuseok holiday — from the 12th to the 14th here in South Korea — means that today’s article is rather timely.
Agata from Gdańsk, Poland asks: “Are there any manifestations of traditional culture… in North Korea despite the limitations?”
In-hua Kim, our North Korean writer, decided to touch on traditional culture in Korea — both the official and the underground — by writing about traditional holidays and also her experience with fortunetellers in her hometown.
Many national holidays in the DPRK came about after the division of the peninsula and are only celebrated in the North: for example, Songun Day, the Day of the Sun, Foundation Day, etc. But Chuseok and Seollal, the two biggest traditional Korean holidays, are still celebrated on both sides of the 38th parallel.
As for fortunetelling, In-hua says that it really took off during the ‘Arduous March.’ The famine in the 1990s had a huge impact on North Korean society, and it seems that fortunetelling was one of the many new ways that people used to survive.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Let’s start with traditional Korean holidays.
On Seollal, North Koreans begin with a memorial ceremony for their ancestors. A variety of dishes are prepared, and friends and relatives gather around a table and play ‘yut nori,’ a traditional board game.
Up until the early 2000s, North Koreans visited the graves of ancestors twice a year — on Dano, which is on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and on Chuseok — to tidy them up and pay respects.
Starting from the end of Kim Jong Il’s rule, however, people were told to do their rituals on Cheongmyeong, one of the lunar calendar’s 24 solar terms that happens around April 5th, instead.
For years, the central government sent down orders to the provinces not to visit graves on Dano, and even threatened to punish those who did not comply. Some people still insisted on going though, questioning why the government would stop an ancestral tradition.
Dano has regained its status since Kim Jong Un came to office.
I believe that Chuseok is observed in a similar way in South Korea, although at the time of writing I have not yet experienced the holiday here and so can’t be sure if this is the case.
North Koreans are much better than South Koreans at maintaining traditional customs
North Koreans strictly observe the anniversaries of deaths. It’s said that oil must be used when cooking on these days, if you can afford it.
People pan-fry cakes and tofu to place on the ceremonial table. Pork and fish are also must-have dishes. Vegetables grown in the mountains are not put on the table, as it’s believed the ancestral spirits are sick of eating them all the time.
We also prepare rice cakes (songpyeon, jeolpyeon, chaltteok, gyeongdan, and millet cakes), bracken, bean sprouts, and tofu.
I think North Koreans are much better than South Koreans at maintaining traditional customs. I see South Koreans dine on many exotic dishes with foreign names and tastes on these anniversaries. Maybe North Koreans don’t because they can’t afford to.
Fortune tellers began to thrive in the late 1990s during the Arduous March. My husband was still in the army and was having a hard time back then, caught up in internal power struggles.
I was very concerned about his work situation and went to my mother to share my frustration. It was not uncommon for military officers to be discharged if they fell out of favor with the senior officer — and, as I mentioned in an earlier piece, along with being discharged from the army goes your family’s quality of life.
My mother at the time suggested visiting a fortuneteller she knew for the price of 100 won — worth 3 kilograms of rice –to discover the fate of my husband. “How on earth would they know what’s going to happen to him?” I chuckled.
She walked out of the house with a serious look on her face, as if my husband’s livelihood was dependent on the fortuneteller. I just kept laughing because she was just being too nonsensical.
In actual fact, it’s quite sad that she had resorted to such measures after having lived her entire life free from superstition. It seemed like she was fearing something bad could follow the death of my father, who was the pillar of our family.
She returned after around two hours with a beaming smile on her face. She said, “Your husband is going to fare well. He will advance to a military university in three years and win a big star from the army!”
Giggling, I asked, “Is that what the fortuneteller told you?” She smacked me on the back and yelled, “Stop laughing and listen! This fortuneteller is really good, she figures things out well.”
She was excited — her son in law was going to be successful. And although I didn’t buy into it all, it was nice to at least imagine it was true.
Two years later my husband was discharged from the military and passed away. My mother never resorted to relying on such superstitions ever again.
“How on earth would they know what’s going to happen to him?”
Fortunetellers were never a thing in North Korea, but they sprang up everywhere during the Arduous March. But being a fortuneteller could land you in prison.
I met a fortuneteller during my time doing forced labor. She was 55 years old and was serving a 3.5-year term for having conducted superstitious activities.
Fellow inmates asked her how she got caught. “I had no way to live and get food, so I went around telling fortunes,” she explained. “One time, I was with this woman whose husband turned out to be a security officer. He suddenly came home and that’s when I got found out.”
There are many even today who tell fortunes to make ends meet. They probably had no money and no other means of business, so I feel sorry that they had to go down that road.
If you want your fortunes to be convincing I think you need to know some history, topography, or psychology. But the fortunetellers in my hometown have none of this knowledge, which is why they are branded as tricksters.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio