North Koreans pressed into mass public tributes to late leader Kim Jong Il for his 79th birth anniversary this month are now struggling to support themselves after missing work for political meetings, patriotic singing contests and dance parties, sources in the country told RFA.
The birth anniversary of Kim Jong Il (1942-2011) on February 16, known as the Day of the Shining Star, and that of his father and predecessor Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) on April 15, known as the Day of the Sun, solidify the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and the country’s third-generation leader, Kim Jong Un.
The two birthdays bookend a two-month Loyalty Festival period, where in most years the country puts on mass games, military demonstrations and cultural events that draw large crowds.
RFA reported at the beginning of this month that people were made to practice singing the praises of Kim Jong Il while dancing in the middle of a harsh Siberian blizzard. Sources complained that the government was asking them to violate its own coronavirus protocols to prepare for the event.
Now they are complaining that they can’t make ends meet, as the preparations have taken them away from their jobs.
“The authorities are mobilizing residents for all these political events because of the Day of the Shining Star, making it difficult for them to make a living,” a resident of northeastern North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service on the eve of the major holiday.
“Residents can only buy food if they work in their daily livelihood activities, whether that’s business or labor. Mobilization for these kinds of events inevitably causes resentment,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
While all residents have government-assigned jobs, the paltry monthly salary they earn is not anywhere near enough to live on. Most families survive by supplementing their income through other activities, like operating small businesses.
But these side hustles are hard to carry on under mass mobilization campaigns.
“The people are busy every day attending things like the Songs of Loyalty singing contest, dance parties, documentary and film festivals, all these events held around the Day of the Shining Star,” the source said.
“In addition, a special security decree was declared from the 15th, today, the day before the Day of the Shining Star, to the end of this weekend, so it is not easy for residents to go out to the nearby marketplace to do their business,” said the source.
The holiday preparations not only affect the mobilized individuals, but their entire communities. Prices for essentials like rice and corn have gone up because when merchants are mobilized, fewer can sell their goods in the marketplace, according to the source.
“The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] promoted the Day of the Shining Star extensively, and now they are busy idolizing Kim Jong Il, but the people wonder why they should treat the holiday like it is a big deal when they have nothing to eat tomorrow,” the source said.
“Residents are resentful of the authorities, saying they should come up with measures to help them make ends meet before promoting the greatness of the former leader,”
A resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA that residents there complained about market prices. Rice was up more than 10 percent, as were other staples like soybeans, corn, soybean powder, millet and red beans. Alcohol was also more costly as the holiday approached.
“Things we need to cook holiday foods, like meat and cooking oil are in short supply,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“The authorities do not care about the lives of the residents. They just bother the residents by making them participate in the Songs of Loyalty contest and watch Kim Jong Il’s films every day. What can the Day of the Shining Star mean to residents who can’t even afford to buy a bottle of cooking oil, much less meat, in this cold winter?”
The day after the holiday, the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on the festivities, saying, “All the people of the DPRK significantly celebrated the birth anniversary of Chairman Kim Jong Il.”
The report described crowds of people visiting various sites in Pyongyang, including the mausoleum where Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung lie in state. There were also photo exhibitions, outdoor performances by opera and folk-art troupes, movie screenings, plays, and a circus event.
Additionally, “parties of young people took place at the plazas of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, the Monument to Party Founding, etc. revving up the atmosphere of the February holiday,” the report said.
While very descriptive of the holiday of the capital, the report only briefly mentioned “similar performances” happening in the provinces.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.