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No candy for old kids in North Korea

North Korea is toning down its annual candy giveaway to children this year ahead of leader Kim Jong Un’s Jan. 8 birthday, handing out less candy and snacks than in previous years – and to fewer children, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia. The quality of candy is also lower, they said.

Meanwhile, adults were buying their annual New Year’s “present” from the state: wall calendars that came with a variety of illustrations, including rockets and images of plump children. The calendars, marking the important dates for “Juche 113” –  also known as 2024 – were once free, but now must be purchased.

Gifts of sweets to children on or around the birthday of the country’s leader has been a tradition in North Korea dating back to the reign of national founder Kim Il Sung – Kim Jong Un’s grandfather – and continued during the rule of his father Kim Jong Il.

But this year the government is limiting the gift to kids aged 6 or younger.

The government began distributing this year’s candy gift on Dec. 31, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

But children will likely be disappointed because they are getting less this year, and the quality has declined, he said.

“The number of recipients who qualify for the gifts also decreased significantly,” he said. “Starting this year, elementary school students [and anyone older] are excluded from receiving confectionery gifts.”

The gift package this year consists of hard candy, packaged snacks like chips or sweet breads, bean powder coated candy, and other select items, he said. 

The government has not overtly said that the candies are for Kim Jong Un’s birthday, however. But residents assume that must be the reason, because they remember that under the rule of the previous leaders, children received candy ahead of their birthdays, the resident said.


With the changing of the year from Juche 112 to Juche 113, adults are also “given” paper calendars from the state, which they must purchase.

“Juche,” is North Korea’s founding philosophy of self-reliance, and the Juche era is said to have begun with the birth of Kim Il Sung in 1912. 

RFA reported in 2022 that pandemic concerns had resulted in people having to pay for their own annual calendar gift, and those who could pay more received better quality calendars.

That trend is continuing into this year, but the people have several versions of the official calendar they can buy, with themes centered around missiles, the cult of personality, the military, education, and tourism, another North Hamgyong resident told RFA on condition of anonymity for personal safety.

The missile calendar is titled “The Status of the Juche Powerhouse,” he said, while the calendar about soldiers and marines is called, ”Let’s Destroy the U.S. Imperialist Invaders, the Bitter Enemies of the Korean People.”

A North Korean wall calendar for the year ‘Juche 113’ or 2024. Residents were “gifted” calendars like these, this year, though they had to be purchased. (RFA)

The tourism-themed calendar seemed tone deaf though, because it pictures a lifestyle that most North Koreans can not even dream of, he said.

“How many people in North Korea can enjoy sightseeing and eating at restaurants on a boat like in the calendar?” he said. “Furthermore, there are students who cannot go to school because they are starving, and there are all these chubby students featured in the [education] calendar.”

The calendars are printed on low-quality paper this year due to a paper shortage, and even then there are different versions of varying cost, a resident of North Pyongan province in the northwest told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“A multipage calendar costs 5,000 won (59 U.S. cents), and a single page calendar [displaying the entire year] costs 500 won (6 cents),” she said. “Well-off residents purchase the multipage calendars and there is a high demand for calendars featuring pictures of flowers and souvenirs.”

She said that the militaristic calendars were less popular because they feature missiles, soldiers or scenes from the 1950-53 Korean War, which North Korea calls the “Great Fatherland Liberation War.” 

The overly militaristic themes are a turnoff for some, but the resident said that people will always find reasons to complain.

 “Last year’s calendar featured a picture of a young child holding a milk cup, but milk is a luxury for most people.” she said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.