The Changing View of the Dictator’s Gifts

Kim Jong Un is seen visiting a child care center in Pyongyang on Feb. 4, 2014. Image via Rodong Sinmun

SEOUL – On the last day of school last year, parents all over North Korea dressed up and made their way to nurseries and kindergartens for a special ceremony. There their children received a gift from the leader, Kim Jong Un, of sugary sweets and other goodies.

Each child received 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of candy, bean candy, cookies, rice crackers and gum.

The parents understood it as the annual treat for the new year. But then it was officially announced that starting this year it was a present to mark Kim’s birthday which is January 8. Kim was being especially generous so that people could enjoy some happy days from new year’s day to his birthday, the regime said. 

Privately, though, the parents weren’t all that impressed. For many, getting to the event wasn’t fun. Transport is limited in many areas, which meant many had to walk up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to the venues. The weather in North Korea in early January can be brutal, reaching 20 C below. 

Then there was the gift itself. These days, people get much better quality candy from the jangmadang markets.

In the past, most families could enjoy the lunar new year sweets and cookies given to children. But nowadays, not so many people are having children. Some couples may have just one or even none at all. When the severe food shortages of recent decades led to the end of state rationing, people figured that having children under conditions where the state no longer guarantees survival puts families at greater risk. 

Low population growth has in fact become an issue. Hence the appearance of Kim himself at the Fifth National Conference of Mothers in early December where it was emphasized that a woman’s patriotic duty is to give birth and raise many children.

The annual gift of sweets for kids dates back to Kim Il Sung’s reign in the 1970s. All infants, elementary school students and babies, and also pregnant women due to give birth that month, received them. Back then, the average household had three to four children, and some had as many as seven or eight. The sugary sweets impressed the people as they weren’t yet available in ordinary stores. The markets didn’t even exist. 

However, under Kim Jong Il the quality deteriorated. The gifts that were once carefully wrapped in boxes were now shoved into plastic bags. More water was added to the sweets which made them sticky. Sweets that didn’t contain enough butter, eggs, or sugar would puff up like bread and quickly get moldy. 

A few years ago, Kim Jong Un expanded the candy gifts to all youngsters, but this year only nursery and kindergarten children received them. . 

Funding for the leader’s gifts comes from the loyalty fund, which every household is required to contribute to. Urban residents give cash, while rural residents contribute agricultural products suitable for export, such as sweet beans. When you consider that they are required to donate 10 kilograms of beans and that they could sell this amount at the market and buy 3 kilograms of high-quality candy and cookies, the dissatisfaction becomes clear. 

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