Seollal (the Korean Lunar New Year), which is an important festival among the Koreans, has just passed. While the people living in North Korea and South Korea share the same ethnic origin and may have similar customs, there may be some cultural differences between people living in the two Koreas mainly due to the differences in their political systems. Let’s discuss some key differences in the Seollal-related customs between the two Koreas in this blog post. If you want to know more about the Korean customs for Seollal in South Korea, you may refer to my blog posts dated 18 February 2015 and 23 February 2015, respectively.
Seollal as a public holiday
Both North Korea and South Korea celebrate 1 January of the Gregorian calendar as the New Year’s Day which is a public holiday. However, while Seollal has long been a public holiday in South Korea, it was not a public holiday in North Korea until 1989.
Mass exodus to hometowns
For South Korea, you may hear a lot about the terrible traffic jam caused by people going back to their hometowns from Seoul to celebrate Seollal with their family members. In North Korea, due to the restrictions on the movement of the people within the country and the less developed transportation network, such mass exodus is not seen at all.
Paying tribute to ancestors and leaders
While both North and South Koreans pay tribute to their ancestors on Seollal, given the huge importance of the political leaders in North Korea, the people in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, go to the Mansudae Hill to bow and put flowers before the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (which is a must-do event for all holidays) to show their respect to the leaders before visiting their ancestral graves.
In South Korea, there are a wide range of popular Seollal gifts for family members and friends such as Spam (luncheon meat) gift sets, cash, meat, fish, fruit, ginseng, health products, toiletries (e.g., shampoo, soap, toothpaste), dried fish and hangwa (traditional Korean cookies). In North Korea, expensive gifts such as watches and electronic devices are only limited to high-ranking officials. For average North Koreans, calendar is the most popular gift – although the quality of calendars produced in North Korea may not be high, as calendars are considered a daily necessity, they are considered as a good gift in North Korea.
Above are some key differences in Seollal customs between North Korea and South Korea – where would you like to spend the Seollal?
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Park Hee-jun, “How Lunar New Year’s looks like in North Korea“, Arirang News, 2018-02-17
Elizabeth Shim, “North Korea celebrates Lunar New Year, but state obligations come first“, UPI, 2017-01-27