No Rest on Sunday for North Koreans

In North Korea, the second Sunday of every month is Sports Day. An image released by KCNA on Jan. 5, 2024, shows citizens in Pyongyang engaging in outdoor activities to mark the nation’s first Sports Day.

SEOUL – The second Sunday of every month in North Korea is officially designated as Sports Day. People go to the workplace, but instead of doing their usual job, they engage in team sports and physical recreation.

For those who rest at the weekend, the idea of having one Sunday each month for physical activities with colleagues may seem attractive. But given the reality that there is no normal rest at the weekend and Sports Day is compulsory, it feels more like prison training.

Sundays are marked in red on the calendar, denoting no work, but the concept of the day of rest began to disappear after Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, came to the fore. While Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, banished all gods from North Korea, Kim Jong Il made sure nothing the gods decreed remained behind.

In one form or another, the world has adopted the fourth of the Ten Commandments to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. North Korea is the only country in the world today that ignores this sacred human right.

The process began with Kim Jong Il’s proclamation of the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System of the Party on April 14, 1974, the eve of the country’s main annual holiday, Kim Il Sung’s birthday. The Ten Principles fostered competition among officials for loyalty. The most noticeable feature of this competition was whether to rest or not on Sundays. Officials started to competitively schedule work on Sundays which workers were obliged to follow.

The disappearance of Sunday was not complete until after the “Arduous March” famine following the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. At first, it was gradual.

The famous North Korean comedian Lee Soon-hong performed a skit titled “Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, Sat” on it. As dissatisfaction increased, Kim Jong Il came to the conclusion that the lack of collective ideology among the people was to blame. To foster a better spirit, he created the special day each month for group sports.

North Koreans are now very negative about Sports Day. “I still feel uncomfortable thinking about it,” said Kim, who worked at a military plant in Pyongyang and who defected to the South in June last year. “The Sports Day in February 2019 was the worst.”

On that day, his workplace was divided into two teams to play volleyball. Employees were exhausted and didn’t care whether their team won or lost. They just wanted to finish quickly and go home. “If someone made a mistake during the game, the officials watching would criticize the employee in front of everyone, saying that the person lacked collective spirit,” he said. To make things worse, on that day, the trams were not operating and everyone had to walk home.

The tradition continues under the rule of Kim Jong Un. We can expect that the citizens’ perspective of Sports Day will become even more bitter.

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