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2009/01/29 14:32 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 39 (January 29, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Koreans Enjoy Lunar New Year Holidays Praying for Good Health of Kim Jong-il

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Koreans observed the Lunar New Year holiday on Jan. 26, exchanging well-wishing remarks and playing folk games, as the nation continued traditional celebrations despite deep economic woes.

   The North's state-run media portrayed citizens greeting the holiday as "vivacious" and "optimistic," reporting on various festive sights in Pyongyang and other cities including a bustling souvenir shop, a children's folk games contest and neon signs sparkling downtown.

   "Proud of achieving a great victory in the struggle to build a socialist economic power, workers of all walks of life across the country spent the meaningful New Year's holiday in great joy and optimism," the North's Korean Central Broadcasting Station and Radio Pyongyang reported the following day.

   Workers and young students started the holiday laying flower baskets before bronze statues in Pyongyang and other big cities of late North Korean founder and leader Kim Il-sung, according to the news media.

   Family members gathered early in the morning, made a traditional New Year's bow to elders, exchanged well-wishing remarks and played folk games like kite-flying and "yutnori" (a competition of two teams to decide which side advances faster on a scoreboard by throwing four sticks). Public sport events of Korea's traditional wrestling, called "ssireum," were also held.

   South Koreans' mass holiday exodus to rural hometowns is not common in North Korea where movement is restricted, but the Koreas share the spirit of Seol -- as the lunar new year is known in Korean -- to exchange well-wishes, pay respect to elders and ancestors and celebrate the new year.

   North Korea once prohibited official celebrations under the socialist banner that rejects Korea's feudal traditions. Seol and Chuseok -- Korea's traditional thanksgiving holiday in early autumn -- were removed from the North's national holiday list in 1967 when President Kim Il-sung issued an order to "eradicate the vestiges of feudalism." The nation replaced Seol with the solar New Year's on Jan. 1.

   The radical policy didn't hold long. The government allowed visits to ancestral graveyards for Chuseok in 1972 and later restored the Lunar New Year's Day in 1989. The one-day Lunar New Year's expanded to the current three-day holiday in 2003 under the directive of leader Kim Jong-il to give greater importance to the traditional holiday, according to the Choson Sinbo, a Korean language newspaper in Japan that usually conveys North Korean policy.

   This year, Pyongyang's historic places, parks, zoos, amusement parks and movie theaters bustled with holiday goers, with famous restaurants serving special dishes such as pheasant meat, Korean rice cakes and cold noodles, according to the North's news reports.

   Simple, but well-intended signs that read "New Year's bow," "folk holiday" or "Seol" were put up on shops to mark the day.

   A national folk games contest of schoolchildren was held for five days until the New Year's Day at Kimilsung Square and other places of Pyongyang with hundreds of students representing each province attending.

   School children staged an annual mass song and dance performance in Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace in Pyongyang for foreign envoys, international organization staff as well as North Korean party and military officials.

   Titled "May snow fall on lunar New Year's Day," this year's performance unusually began with a prelude praying for the good health of Kim Jong-il who reportedly suffered a stroke in the middle of August, a move indicating that he has recuperated somewhat but not fully enough.

   "School boys and girls extended to Marshal Kim Jong-il lunar New Year's greetings carrying their best wishes for his good health when the performers presented the song of best wishes and dances with ardent longing to see him," the (North) Korean Central News Agency reported. Kim was not present in the concert.

   Kim, who turns 67 next month, attended a closely watched meeting with a visiting Chinese official last week in his first appearance to a foreign guest since he disappeared from the public eyes for more than 50 days last year.

   In the North's 1.1-million strong military, soldiers feast on pigs they have raised in their units and typically receive soy oil or flour sent by the United States or South Korea, Seoul's military officials say. South Korea stopped shipping its customary humanitarian aid a year ago amid frozen inter-Korean relations.

   A female North Korean defector, who escaped the country in 2003, recounted people shared feelings of togetherness in the North even though they lived in want. On the Seol holidays, they manage to have some rice and pork stew to celebrate the new year, she said.

   "In the South, you don't even know who your neighbors are, but in the North, village people exchange greetings and well-wishes on Seol," the 42-year-old defector who wanted to be identified only by her family name Kim said.

   Another defector, however, said economic wooes increasingly shadowed the festive mood. Customary rations of up to one kilogram of rice for Seol diminished, and most North Koreans are forced to observe the day on their own, she said. The government can't provide rations as many factories remain closed due to the shortage of electricity and resources.

   The North's frail economy appears headed for negative growth this year. After the famine in the 1990s and international economic sanctions, the North's gross domestic product in 2007 was valued at 20.7 trillion won (US$14.9 billion), even lower than its output in 1990, estimated at 24.1 trillion won, according to South Korea's central bank.

   "In the old days, people gathering in the mills and waiting to get their rice cake done was a common scene. But with the economic problems, rations are not provided well, and people have to buy food in markets on their own," the 61-year-old defector surnamed Lee said.