Under the gray clouds that hang above Mt. Kumgang’s craggy rock face, the Han River meanders westward across the Korean peninsula. With a surface of crystal blues and white surf stitched along the bank, the Han looks like a swirl of shattered glass.
It is difficult to overstate not only the beauty but the power of the Han River, which has flowed amidst South Korea’s increased urbanization and rapid economic growth following the Korean War. However, while the Han’s beauty may symbolize South Korea’s success in the domestic and global economy, it also marks the 155 miles of division between the northern and southern regions of the peninsula.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone, which runs along the 38th parallel line of the Korean peninsula, adds a new layer of meaning to the Han River. Along the untouched strip of land between North and South Korea, eagles and white-naped cranes abound, encircled by barbed-wire fencing. Wild boar emerge from the brush, injured by landmines scattered beneath the packed earth. Under the watchful eye of heavily armed soldiers, the Han River continues flowing, reflecting the unwavering tension and physical division between the two countries.
Historically, the North Korean government has garnered widespread international attention for rejecting notions of governmental pluralism, enforcing strict travel and border restrictions, committing profound human rights violations and threatening nuclear aggression. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become more isolationist than ever before, further restricting individual freedoms and posing a challenge to international human rights organizations that provide aid to North Koreans.
Persistent isolationism narrows the lens through which the global community views North Korea, making its citizens particularly vulnerable to a narrative that excludes their experience. Because North Koreans cannot leave the country without express government permission, communication with other nations is nearly impossible.
Beyond satellite surveillance, most publicly-accessible information about North Korea comes from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. Un’s speeches typically revolve around matters of state, particularly military and scientific advances and assurances of economic prosperity (despite reports of North Korean trade falling 17.3% in 2021).
International media frequently portrays the Supreme Leader as a caricature, emphasizing personal details like his rumored obsession with imported Swedish cheese or bizarre friendship with American basketball player Dennis Rodman. When he’s not depicted as a cartoon, Kim Jong-Un’s fanatical pursuit of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal is the centerpiece of discourse about North Korea. Focusing exclusively on Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, even to express concern over the myriad atrocities committed by the North Korean government, obscures the humanity and personal identity of the 26 million North Korean citizens. As long as a mockery of Kim Jong-Un remains the central symbol of his country, North Korean citizens’ lived experiences will be downplayed and masked by the “amusing” whims of a tyrannical despot.
Gaining insight into the experiences, goals and reflections of North Korean citizens on their personal lives and cultural legacy has been a consistent challenge. Organizations such as Liberty in North Korea have done an excellent job publishing defectors’ stories that decentralize Kim Jong-Un to dispel the narrative that he represents the entire country. However, even with defectors as contributors, many of the pieces internationally published about North Korea emphasize the Supreme Leader’s cult of personality or voyeuristically scrounge for gruesome details on North Korean prison camps.
In a country where everyday cultural experience is seldom able to be documented, one uncharacteristic government maneuver offered a window into North Korean life.
In 2015, the North Korean government submitted a bid to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to have kimchi designated as one of the nine foods on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
North Korea’s bid to place the traditional fermented vegetable dish on UNESCO’s list was unique for two primary reasons. Due to the DPRK’s fraught relationship with organizations like the UN, submitting a bid for the award was unusual. Beyond the government’s aberrant choice to engage with an international peace organization, applying for kimchi to be inducted into UNESCO intangible cultural heritage was strange for the simple fact that kimchi was already on the list, having been awarded to South Korea two years prior.
It is easy to dismiss North Korea’s bid for kimchi to receive the intangible cultural heritage designation as a slight to South Korea and reclamation of the dish as distinctly northern. However, even if there were competitive undertones to the DPRK’s UNESCO submission, the application is still a snapshot of everyday life that places North Korean people at the center of their cultural narrative.
The slideshow of images on North Korea’s official UNESCO Intangible Heritage Representative List paints an intimate portrait of kimchi’s significance in the country. In the accompanying summary of the food’s influence in North Korea, the matrilineal nature of kimchi-making is outlined. The text describes how making kimchi in North Korea reflects a distinct harmony with nature and that kimjang, or the communal process of fermenting vegetables for kimchi, has socially cohesive underpinnings.
The DPRK’s official UNESCO page is not only a critical tool for understanding aspects of North Korean culture beyond the machinations of its government; it is also a valuable resource to note the similarities and differences between kimjang in North and South Korea. Because South Korea boasts its own UNESCO kimchi page, there is an opportunity to notice potentially unifying cultural elements between the two processes.
For example, on both the North and South Korean UNESCO pages, women are highlighted as the center of the kimchi-making process. However, the South Korean page provides images of men loading large cabbages into cars and engaging with the process more than the North Korean page. On the South Korean page, images of the final dish are frequently represented, whereas on the North Korean page, the finished product only appears accompanied by people. Depending on one’s contextual knowledge of the two countries, the kimjang images provide valuable insight into North Korean cultural practices.
After reading and viewing the slideshow on North Korea’s UNESCO page, I learned much about the significance of kimjang in the DPRK. I wondered if other culinary traditions could provide a window into North Korean life unfettered by the sensationalized media bias that normally clouds discourse about the northern half of the peninsula.
To gain a deeper understanding of North Korean culinary culture, I spoke to Dr. Cheehyung Harrison Kim, an associate professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa who specializes in daily life and architecture in North Korea. In 2014, Dr. Kim visited North Korea and noted his experiences with the people he met on his trip.
“Some of the best beer you’ll ever find is in North Korea,” Dr. Kim noted, with levity in his tone but a firm emphasis on the strength of his point. He continued, “Because of the early German influence, you see that influence in the Bauhaus as well.” Drawing from both his research and personal experience in North Korea, Dr. Kim was referring to the Taedonggang Brewing Company in P’yŏngyang, a lauded brewery enjoyed in beer gardens along the Taedonggang River. Dr. Kim noted that East Germany exerted strong cultural influence over North Korea, explaining the German beer and hyper-efficient clean-line Bauhaus architecture ubiquitous in Hamhŭng, a major North Korean city.
To Dr. Kim, hanging out with local Pyongyang and Hamhung residents at various beer gardens was a life-changing experience. The camaraderie with the people Dr. Kim met on his trip fused with a newfound understanding of how European communist influences shaped the architecture and culture of North Korea. Dr. Kim emphasized how this personal yet intellectually curious approach to exploring North Korea is necessary for cross-cultural understanding. “The best way to truly understand North Korea is to visit yourself,” Dr. Kim concluded, adding that he was “blown away” by the naengmyeon (a traditional Korean noodle dish) he enjoyed at an open-air restaurant in the heart of Pyongyang.
Dr. Kim’s reflection on his 2014 visit to North Korea cemented the profound value of North Korea’s UNESCO kimchi designation. Exploring North Korea’s culinary practices sheds light on the mundane experiences and broader cultural values held by communities within the DPRK. There is no widespread documentation of German cultural influence in North Korea, but the proliferation of German breweries elucidates its impact.
Similarly, ideas of matrilineal traditions, social cohesion and gender-based labor are seldom seen in widespread media coverage of the DPRK. Still, they become clear when examining how North Korean people practice kimjang differently than their South Korean counterparts. Even Dr. Kim’s aside about the Pyongyang naengmyeon illuminated the café and casual restaurant culture enmeshed in Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un’s leisure agenda for the country.
Due to its draconian border security and isolationist policies, food shortages plague North Korea. While the dire impact of famine in the DPRK cannot be overstated, the only media coverage of North Korea’s food landscape pertains to widespread starvation. In foreign press releases, the individual identities of North Korean citizens disappear as they are reduced to famine statistics. Framing almost every piece of news and history of North Korea around nuclear war, starvation and a parodied dictator completely erases the lived experiences of contemporary North Koreans.
While documenting the endemic food shortages in North Korea is an essential component of understanding the country, it cannot be the only aspect of the North Korean foodscape that is explored. Culinary history sheds light on and humanizes the daily experiences of the North Korean citizenry. To engage in a comprehensive cross-cultural understanding between those inside and outside of North Korea, cultural scaffolds such as culinary tradition must be documented with careful attention and with respect to individualism.
Avery Crystal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.