Elite North Koreans Seeking Out Forbidden Fortune Tellers Amid Turbulent Times

January 5, 2018 Updated: January 6, 2018

Strict information control in North Korea prohibits residents from getting information from anything but official sources.

While South Korean dramas are a particularly sought-after indulgence, some cadres worried about getting caught up in one of Kim Jong Un’s purges or falling out of favor amid interparty jockeying are looking for reassurance from an unlikely illicit source—fortune tellers.

The new fad has picked up as those offering to foresee the future for anxious comrades offer home visits, according to Daily NK, a news site that specializes in getting information from sources inside North Korea.

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A photo taken on July 24, 2017, shows a group of university students walking on a street in Pyongyang. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

According to sources inside the communist state, more residents are seeking out fortune tellers despite the service being banned. To avoid the punishment, they are meeting their clairvoyants clandestinely.

According to Daily NK, residents are worried about oppressive policies and economic uncertainty arising from international sanctions. North Korea was subject to another round of United Nations Security Council sanctions in December, and North Korean state media have continued to tell residents that war could come at any time.

But authorities don’t want citizens getting information from unregulated sources, making fortune telling a dangerous profession.

“Recently, the authorities have been trying to rid the country of superstition by making examples of fortune tellers and face-readers, sending them to labor camps,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK via telephone on Dec. 29.

“However, people are always interested to know what fortunes the new year will bring them, so they’re asking around to try to find undercover fortune tellers.”

According to the source, fortune tellers are being sought out by Party cadres and “donju,” the wealthy elite who have emerged in recent years out of a combination of official corruption and free enterprise.

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North Korean visitors leave the 13th International Trade Fair in Pyongyang on Sept. 25, 2017. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Some donju will pick up fortune tellers in their cars, bring them home, and have them read the fortunes of friends and family before dropping them back off, said the source.

Practicing or promoting “superstitious practices” is illegal in North Korea, reports Daily NK, citing article 256 of the North Korean Constitution: “Those who receive money or goods in exchange for performing superstitious practices on multiple occasions will be sentenced to a punishment of a maximum of one year of labor […] Those who teach multiple people about superstitious practices or bring about severe results through such practices will be sentenced to a maximum of three years of labor. In extreme cases, the penalty of labor will be from three to seven years.”

Officials have tried to crack down on the practice through arrests, but widespread uncertainty will continue to fuel demand, said the source. For North Koreans distrustful of the Kim regime and worried about the future, fortune tellers provide a source of comfort, reports Daily NK.

A separate source in North Pyongan Province told the news site that arresting fortune tellers would do little to curb the practice.

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A sales assistant looks at a leaflet as she waits for customers at a vehicle parts shop in Pyongyang on Nov. 16, 2017. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

“Instead of trying to solve the fundamental problems like providing food for everyone, the authorities are focusing on catching fortune tellers. This is driving up dissatisfaction.”

Despite the harsh punishment, fortune telling by face reading and birthdate has grown in popularity since the late 90s. Fortune tellers can earn between 5,000 and 50,000 KPW (North Korean dollars). One kilogram of rice costs 5,000 KPW.

“Getting one’s fortune read is a way of seeking stability and affirmation, so it tends to be popular with those who face uncertainty, like Party cadres,” said the source. “So it seems inevitable that the fortune tellers will continue to visit their homes.”


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