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Inside North Korea

Summer Holidays in N. Korea



The summer vacation season is in full swing here in South Korea, with travelers flocking to famous beaches and valleys across the nation. So, how are North Korean people spending their summer holidays? Here’s Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education with more.

North Korea’s Labor Law states that all workers are to be given 14 days of paid leave per year and an additional seven to 21 days of leave in accordance with their occupation.

North Koreans must first ask for a leave of absence at the political organizations they belong to. For example, office workers and farmers apply for leave at the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea, respectively. Party members should request leave at a similar organization within the party. Aside from these political organizations, they also have to report to their bosses at their workplaces. 

Article 65 of the Socialist Labor Law in North Korea stipulates that laborers and office workers shall receive 14 days of regular leave a year and seven to 21 days of supplementary leave based on their jobs. 

North Korean residents mostly take a leave of absence for family occasions, economic activities or to prepare firewood or for kimjang, the winter kimchi-making practice. In general, farmers ask for leave at collective farms in the farming off-season in November or December. The same is true of factory workers. It is hardly conceivable that North Korean citizens would take a break simply to go out for some fun or enjoy leisure activities. 

Some lucky North Korean people may spend their vacation at local resorts or rest centers set up by authorities. The North claims that its people can fully enjoy their right to rest. 

There are about 100 rest centers in North Korea. Of course, the facilities are not open to all workers. Only those who have made certain achievements are entitled to the resorts as a reward or commendation. At a company with 100 workers, for instance, two or three of them can be admitted to the rest centers on a quarterly basis. 

Most country retreats are located at sites of scenic beauty, including Mt. Myohyang in the northwestern part of the country and Sokwang(석왕) Temple in the eastern province of Gangwon . People can go there with their family or individually. But it doesn’t mean they can freely relax at those facilities. There, they participate in recreational or leisure activities, sports and learn in groups. 

Healthy citizens as well as those who need to improve their health can use the rest centers, which are mostly located at mountains, beaches, lakes or hot springs nationwide. Springs, in particular, have various treatment facilities. Farmers, laborers and soldiers use the resorts, but not every citizen is fortunate enough to spend their vacations at these state-run areas due to their limited accommodation capacities.  

Moreover, North Korean residents must obtain a travel certificate to move to other regions. In addition, the nation’s traffic conditions are not very good. These factors make it difficult for North Koreans to enjoy their vacations at cool retreats in remote regions during the hot summer season. Still, they have their own ways to beat the heat. 

As a way of escaping the summer heat, people prepare a fishing net called “bandu”(반두) and a cauldron made of aluminum. Traditional cauldrons are typically made of cast iron but many North Koreans use aluminum cauldrons, which are much lighter than traditional ones. They go to nearby rivers with their family members or friends and catch freshwater fish using the bandu and boil it with rice in the cauldron for a long time. The food is called fish porridge, which is regarded as one of the healthiest and invigorating dishes in the North. Fishing in rivers is a popular way of taking a brief respite from the sizzling summer heat. 

During the hot summer, many North Koreans take a day off and make an excursion to rivers or seas in their region, especially on July 27th, which is the day when the Korean War armistice was signed, but is celebrated in North Korea as “Victory Day.” They also take trips during Liberation Day on August 15th or Youth Day which is on August 28th. North Koreans can enjoy their free time without any restraint on these official holidays. At the rivers or seas, they cool off from the heat with a refreshing swim, cook porridge with fish, and sing and dance to get away from their daily routines and the scorching heat. Meanwhile, in the capital of Pyongyang, many citizens have fun at large water parks. 

Munsu(문수) Water Park opened in Pyongyang in 2013 under the rule of Kim Jong-un. It costs two US dollars to use the facilities for two hours. One dollar equals roughly 8,000 North Korean won. Given that the monthly salary of North Korean workers is 3,000 won on average, spending two hours at the water park is equivalent to five or six months’ salary. While two dollars is nothing for wealthy people and those in power, it is a hefty sum for ordinary workers. But workers still go to the water park with special coupons provided by their factories or companies. In addition to Munsu Water Park, a few more similar water facilities in the capital attract a number of Pyongyang citizens, people from local regions and foreign tourists. 

There are several water parks in Pyongyang, including Munsu and Mangyeongdae. Munsu Water Park, in particular, is the nation’s largest water park equipped with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a wave pool, more than 20 water slides, a fitness center, upscale restaurants and many other amenities. Users have to pay for the tickets in foreign currencies like the US dollar or the euro. Unlike people from the upper class and foreign tourists who get an “express ticket,” general citizens usually wait in line for hours before entering the park. 

Visitors to Unha Seawater Swimming Pool in Pyongyang, which also opened in 2013, can enjoy swimming in saltwater all the way from the West Sea. It is called the “urban beach” in the heart of the capital. 

Of course, these lavish, unconventional water facilities are only found in Pyongyang. Still, they show that a growing number of North Korean citizens enjoy their summer breaks in a similar way to their South Korean counterparts. 

As we know, many North Koreans had to survive on their own without depending on the state rationing system after the severe economic difficulties in the mid-1990s. For those who can afford to feed themselves, their desire for culture and leisure has become stronger. Also, information from the outside world has changed their way of thinking. While secretly watching foreign movies and TV programs, including those from South Korea, they find themselves hoping to lead a free, affluent life like the people in the films and dramas. In addition, various amusement facilities have been created, especially in Pyongyang, under the current Kim Jong-un regime. They include the Mirim horse riding club, Munsu Water Park and the Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground. A ski resort also opened on Masik Pass near the east coast. As North Korea has built an infrastructure to allow people to enjoy cultural activities, it seems their way of spending the summer holidays is also changing. 

As Professor Chung explained, more and more North Korean people seem to be developing a desire to enjoy culture and leisure. North Korea has invested in a new tourism infrastructure since Kim Jong-un came to power. But the benefits should not be limited to a particular region or class of people. In the summer, people in various parts of the world usually rest and stay cool in a place they want. We hope that it will become more common to see various people in North Korea enjoying their summer vacations.

(Next time, we’ll talk about companies in North Korea.)

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