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School Picnics in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-04-19

Korea, Today and Tomorrow


A spring breeze in blowing gently and mountains are all turning light green in April, which is indeed a season for a picnic. Students go for an outing to somewhere other than their school with their friends on a special occasion, namely, a school picnic, which is also called “a field trip” these days. At this time of year, students in North Korea, just like their South Korean counterparts, are busy preparing for their school trips. Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s school excursion from Professor Jeong Eun Chan at the National Institute for Unification Education. 

In this North Korean video, a boy tells his mom that he is going on wonjok, which refers to a picnic. The word literally means “walking to a faraway place to have fun.” North Korean students go on a picnic, which is also called hiking and a field trip, usually in spring and fall. When the picnic day comes nearer, students are full of excitement. 

Days before the school picnic, North Korean students are thrilled and excited at the thought of what kinds of food they will share with their friends and what they will receive as a prize in a treasure hunt game during the excursion. I imagine students here in South Korea feel the same way. 

When I was little, I liked the idea of sharing delicious food with my friends during the picnic but I really looked forward to playing treasure hunt, which was a competition between classes. I wished, so desperately, my class would win. I was thrilled even before the picnic. 

North Korea’s Socialist Constitution stipulates that citizens have freedom of travel. In reality, however, the state limits the residents’ free movement. That’s why North Korean students just can’t wait for their school excursions, which lets them get away from their daily routine, even just for a short while. So, where do they go for a picnic? 

I’ve once visited the Rungra(릉라) People’s Pleasure Ground. My daughter had such a great time that she kept pestering me to go there again. So I came to the place with my family to enjoy this beautiful Sunday. 

In North Korea, picnic sites differ, depending on the region. Students in big cities, including Pyongyang, go to famous entertainment facilities, like the Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground, which is popular with family visitors, and Moranbong Park that has a number of historical structures. But students living in local provinces are different. 

Students in local regions usually go for outings to nearby mountains or hills. Teachers inspect the potential picnic sites in advance and avoid hills that are too steep. They choose gentle uphill slopes followed by an even ground. Schools compete to secure an ideal place for picnics. If all the schools in the region choose the same date for a picnic, they will find it difficult to locate an appropriate site. Therefore, schools set different dates for their excursions and designate their own picnic sites beforehand. 

In the 1990s, North Korea suffered from shortages of food and energy as well as economic difficulties due to the collapse of the socialist bloc and natural disasters. Local residents cut down trees on the mountains at random to secure fuel and also clear room for farming. The reckless logging devastated forests, making it difficult for schools to find picnic spots. Some schools sent male students in upper grades, as an advance team, to mountains or hills to occupy a good picnic place. 

Students try to come up with special ideas on how to have fun on the picnic day. When they arrive at the picnic site, a sports event begins. 

Tug-of-war is a favorite activity for the sport event during the school picnic. 

Tug-of-war is so popular that North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television gives special tips on how to win the game. Students participate in various other games including the teacher-carrying race and the bottle race, where they put a weight suspended from a short string inside a beverage bottle and run, carefully carrying the bottle. After going around the halfway point, those who reach the finishing line first win. They should run slowly, though, because the bottle may break if the weight inside the bottle swings hard. The best part of the school picnic is a treasure hunt, as you may expect. 

A treasure hunt is definitely the highlight of the picnic. Students are supposed to find slips of paper hidden in bushes or under the trees. Some instructions are written on the paper, such as “Bring your math teacher to a certain place by a certain time.” In this case, the treasure hunt might be called “people hunt.” Another instruction tells the students to go to a particular place and bring a particular flower. When the students fulfill their mission, they are given a present. These days, students receive a present when they only find the hidden slips of paper. 

In the past, a treasure hunt was the flower of the school picnic in South Korea, too. Students would poke around in rock crevices and between tree branches to find slips of paper hidden by teachers in advance. In the same way, North Korean students enthusiastically engage in the treasure hunt game. When someone says “I found it!” and shouts for joy, those who failed to find it sigh deeply. While playing, the students get hungry. It’s time for lunch. 

Another charm of school picnics is to share packed lunches with friends. Parents from rich families send as many as several kilograms of rice cake so all the classmates can share them. Students may bring rice cake, white rice or corn rice for lunch, depending on their living standards. Those from well-off families may bring rare food items such as eggs and meat, while students from poor families only bring potatoes. It is a sad story, but some students brought rice with glutinous corn and pretended that it was white rice, because glutinous corn is somewhat whitish. But they were made fun of by their classmates, who knew that it was not really white rice. 

On picnic days, students bring packed lunches and share it with their friends and teachers. Lunchtime is the most exciting part of the picnic, but it also reveals the difference in the students’ standards of living. 

For children from wealthy families, their lunchboxes include white rice, boiled eggs and meat. Some bring rice cake. Since rice is rare in North Korea, those who consume rice cake are regarded as being rich. 

In South Korea, gimbap or Korean seaweed rice rolls is the most popular picnic food. In the North, gimbap, just like rice cake, shows one’s family wealth. 

To make delicious gimbap, you should cook rice well. The rice should be thick and sticky. First, cut cucumbers and carrots into long strips. Let me show you how to make them. Now, season the cooked rice with salt before it gets cold. 

With trade between North Korea and China increasing nowadays, North Korean TV shows viewers how to make gimbap. But until the 1990s, gimbap was a gourmet meal that was included in a lunchbox packed by those who were from a pro-North Korean residents’ league in Japan. It is easy to imagine that well-to-do parents would prepare rare gimbap for their kids’ picnic lunches. Children from poor families, on the other hand, would bring corn rice or potatoes. The economic power of the students is also shown in the lunchbox offered to teachers. 

Parents who have high living standards even include desserts, such as fruit, in lunchboxes for teachers. Some parents who are not very well off also prepare picnic lunches for teachers because they wish to show sincerity. As a result, teachers may receive multiple lunchboxes. Of course, many students cannot afford to prepare lunches for their teachers. Just looking at the lunchboxes, teachers know the living standards of the students. Some lunchboxes are really great, while others may not be very good. But some teachers choose to eat the latter first. 

In North Korea, preparing lunches for teachers is considered part of warm affection or emotional connection between people. The lunchboxes show whether the student’s family is rich or poor. But these days, the thriving private market in the country, known as jangmadang, enables most parents to prepare good picnic lunches for their children. 

After eating packed lunches, students participate in a talent show competition between classes. 

After lunch, students take part in a talent contest, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments or reciting poems. Also, a speech contest is often held. I imagine many North Korean students love K-pop. But if they sing a South Korean song in public, they will be in big trouble. Rather, they generally sing songs they have learned in school, including those idolizing the top leader. The talent show and the sports event might take place in the morning or in the afternoon. 

South Korean students show off their talents by performing trendy songs and dances and doing hilarious gags during their school picnics. Similarly, students in North Korea are eager to showcase their talents. Those who are good at setting the mood during the picnics enjoy huge popularity. 

North Korean people belong to certain groups, including political ones. Students are no exception. They are the members of different groups, and each of the groups has its own head. If some of the group heads come forward to brighten up the mood during school picnics, they will immediately be popular with students. 

During sports events, some students lead the cheering squad, dancing and clapping their hands. They are also popular. To lead the cheering group well, they should have a good voice and dance well. They soon become a center of attraction. 

At the talent shows during school picnics, great singers and dancers amuse the audiences. At the competitions between teams, some students definitely stand out among the team members. Meanwhile, others lift up the mood at sports events. They all give the students and teachers unforgettable memories. 

On a warm spring day, students eat packed lunches in the open air and enjoy themselves. In North Korea, outdoor activities are restricted and there aren’t many places for people to have fun. School picnics are indeed special, happy occasions for students, as they are allowed to go out with their friends, prepare for various kinds of delicious food and have a blast all day long. 

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