The most important dates for North Koreans born since the 1970s are the birthdays of former leader Kim Il-sung on April 15 and present leader Kim Jong-il on Feb. 16. North Koreans may forget their parents' birthdays but they always remember the leaders', because that is when gifts of food and other daily necessities are doled out and a festive mood prevails throughout the country.
But now, due to international sanctions and the spread of grassroots capitalism, the traditional "gift politics" may be coming to an end as the regime can no longer afford to dole out grace and favor.
The candy and cakes that were doled out on Kim Il-sung's birthday were traditionally much better quality than those available in ordinary shops. Nylon and tetron fabric were also distributed, much more highly prized than the normally available synthetic cotton, mixed-spun or vinalon fabrics that shrink in the wash. Parents who can barely afford to clothe their children have no choice but to be grateful to Kim Il-sung.
On the two birthdays, a bottle of liquor, five eggs, two day's supply of milled rice, 1-2 kg of meat, and cigarettes are distributed to every household. These are precious commodities not normally available to everyone. Thanks to these gift packages, the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have long become established as major holidays.
The elite of the Workers Party are given luxurious houses, luxury cars like Mercedes and Swiss-made Omega gold watches. Quality wristwatches are given to ordinary people who have distinguished themselves meritorious and are preserved as heirlooms.
◆ Economic Changes
But amid a food shortage and international sanctions, the regime is having to rethink the practice. And markets are booming there now despite the regime’s attempt to suppress them, so North Koreans can buy Chinese-made candies and cakes and other necessities without much difficulties. This makes the leaders' birthday gifts look not so special any more.
The quality of gifts is also falling year by year. Senior officials, unable to live on gifts and official supplies alone, enrich themselves through corruption. An increasing number of officials secretly hoard hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it is therefore natural that the leader's gifts lose their luster.
January 8 was the birthday of Kim Jong-il's son and heir Jong-un. Although there had been rumors that the regime would designate Kim junior's birthday as a national holiday and hold lavish celebrations, it passed quietly.
The North designated Kim Jong-il's birthday as a national holiday quite a few years after he made an official debut in 1974. It was also only when his power base was cemented that he began to dole out gifts to celebrate his birthday. While Kim Il-sung was alive, he gave gifts only to close associates as a gesture of courtesy to his father. So long as Kim Jong-il is alive, therefore, chances are that there will be no gifts to the public or nationwide celebrations on Jong-un's birthday.