A family shares a meal to mark the lunar new year. Image: Alex Zuccarelli / Alamy

A very North Korean new year

In a corner of London, a diasporic community gathers to celebrate, to hope—and to fight on
February 15, 2024

No matter the calendar, the year’s end tends to be the same old story—as the Indian poet Chandrama Deshmukh puts it, “a desperate celebration of the end”. But sometimes you come across something a little different. Last Friday, I found myself just a stone’s throw from New Malden—an area of London known as “Little Pyongyang,” as it’s said to contain one of the largest Korean populations in Europe—watching the North Korean defector Emily Yeyoung herald the end of the old lunar year, and the start of a new one, by playing the guitar and sharing her stories. The room is fixated, the mood sombre. It is, perhaps, the most sincere New Year’s party I have ever attended.

Those who celebrate the Lunar New Year follow the lunisolar calendar, where the months rely on moon cycles and the years are regulated by the sun’s position. That means that, for many, last Saturday marked the start of 2024. Some may know this as Chinese New Year. But, amid all the usual red lantern parades and firework shows, Yeyoung’s performance was a quiet ode to Seollal, the Korean New Year.

Yeyoung’s technique is terrific and nostalgic. She plays the guitar like a gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument, laying it across her lap and making sweeping, dramatic movements to jump from chord to chord. Between each song, she shares an anecdote with the audience, telling us of the loneliness—and other hardships—that she has faced in her journey from North Korea to London. (Click here for a fine example of the gayageum in action.)

Western—we might call them “Gregorian”—New Year’s celebrations often have a touch of sadness about them. It’s similar during Yeyoung’s performance, but not quite the same. The sadness here has nothing melancholic about it, no resignation nor acceptance—just a quiet urge for things to get better. It’s a little angry. Defiant, even. Which feels especially fitting for the year of the blue dragon, which represents hope—and for some, perhaps, hope that North and South Korea might one day reunify. (Though it ought to be noted that overall support for reunification drops with each passing year).

This sadness is similar to a feeling that connects all Koreans: han. With no English equivalent, the definition of han varies across the diaspora—and can mean anything from collective pain to postcolonial trauma to the notion of a shared conscience. And while han isn’t a typical feeling at Seollal festivities, I can’t help but think of it when I see Yeyoung, another Korean—albeit from a wholly different Korea than the one I know—tell her stories.

By all measures, Korea is starkly divided. Slashed in two along the 38th parallel after the Second World War, and since held to that division by political tensions, it’s hard to imagine a world in which the peninsula could, once again, become one. But Seollal is celebrated by both North and South Korea—for a moment, somewhere outside of New Malden, we all shared this odd bond that knows no territorial boundaries.

That fairy tale soon came to an end, however. On tables around the performance space, a feast had been prepared for the audience to enjoy before and after Yeyoung’s concert. Stir-fried rice cakes, kimchi and fish pancakes, dumplings, gimbap and crispy chicken wings. Delicious—but a stark reminder of how different the two Koreas are. While the typical South Korean pantry has expanded thanks to the economic inflows and outflows of globalisation, North Korean pantries have certainly not enjoyed the same experience. There, rice cakes are often in short supply; meats and fish are expensive and hard to come by; Korean fried chicken—a fusion dish that allegedly came about during the Second World War, with the presence of American troops—is maybe non-existent.

All that said, the Lunar New Year is meant to be a time of colour and happiness. It’s just that any North Korean spin on it makes me—anyone—think of those left behind, snared by political lines. As London, Manchester and many other cities around the world celebrated with firecrackers and jubilees, Yeyoung’s performance was a subtle, powerful reminder of a diaspora that is quiet—but not unheard.

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