In North Korea, printed calendars separate rich from poor

What was once a yearly gift provided by the government is now unaffordable to most citizens.
By Jieun Kim
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In North Korea, printed calendars separate rich from poor These file photos show North Korean calendars for 2021 (Juche year 110) and 2022 (Juche year 111).

Inflation in North Korea has caused the price of even government issued calendars to skyrocket, to the point that they have become a status symbol separating rich and poor in the isolated country, sources there told RFA.

It was once customary every December for the government to give each household an official one-page calendar marking the Gregorian and Juche dates, the latter named after national founder Kim Il Sung’s ideology of self-reliance and counting the number of years since his birth in April 1912.

But in recent years people have had to be self-reliant and pay for their annual gift. Several different types of calendars also became available.

Six-page double-sided calendars with color photos that dedicate an individual page for each month, printed in the capital Pyongyang, cost the most. Each province also has several locally printed ones that are cheaper but are of lesser quality.

RFA reported last year that the 2021 calendars were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The closure of the border with China and suspension of trade made imported paper and ink scarce, and in mid-January, people still hadn’t received their calendars.

In 2022 the same issues as last year persist. A second year without imports has ruined North Korea’s economy and made food shortages worse. Under these conditions, the price of calendars has increased as much as fourfold, and only those fortunate enough not to be worrying about their next meal can even think about which of the “government-gifted” calendar they want to buy.

“One change is noticeable in the New Year’s calendar. They added another slogan, beyond the usual ‘Our great comrades, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are with us forever,’” a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service Dec. 27.

“The new calendar also says, ‘We wish for the well-being of the General Secretary,’” said the source, referring to current leader Kim Jong Un by his official title.

In the northwestern province of North Pyongan, the Pyongyang-printed calendars are popular, but expensive, a resident of North Pyongan province told RFA on the same day.

“The New Year’s calendars have been published and they are being sold at market stalls in each region,” the source said. 

“But the calendars with color photos that were printed in Pyongyang, are so expensive that ordinary citizens cannot afford to buy them,” said the North Pyongan source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

In addition to the Pyongyang calendars, there are two or three locally printed calendars available to the residents of North Pyongan.

“The six-page national calendars are popular because they… use a higher quality of paper and show beautiful landscape photos,” said the North Pyongan source.

A six-page Pyongyang calendar last year cost 10 yuan (U.S. $1.57), but this year they cost between 30 and 40 yuan, or the cost of several dozen kilograms of corn, according to the North Pyongan source.

“Who other than the super-rich would be willing to buy a calendar for that much?” said the North Pyongan source.

Production of calendars was delayed even more than last year in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, the resident of that province said.

“A simple one-page calendar, with the 12 months printed on a single sheet, and a six-page picture calendar appeared in the market only a few days ago,” said the North Hamgyong source.

“The official national calendar, with a separate month on each page, has a government-mandated price of 3,000 won (U.S. $0.60). There are limited copies of this calendar distributed to each of the state-run companies and units. These calendars are smuggled out and are being traded in the market at the ridiculously high price of 30 to 40 yuan ($4.70-6.30),” said the North Hamgyong source.

There are some who still receive the calendars as free gifts, according to the North Hamgyong source.

“This year the gift was limited to honored veterans, leaving most ordinary residents to spend the whole year without a calendar.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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