The course of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is often referred to as being radically different from his father and grandfather. One of the oft cited examples is the construction of Masik Pass Ski Resort—a project which is expected to shame Switzerland and Thailand, and make foreign tourists flock to North Korea with heaps of coveted foreign currency (that is sure to end up in the DPRK’s treasury). In the view of many foreign observers, this idea sounds rather different to the allegedly less ambitious projects exposed by Kim’s predecessors, such as the development of nuclear weapons.
In actual fact, the Masik Pass project fits quite well into an established practice of the North Korean leadership. They have always had a weak spot for ‘miracle’ technical solutions to complex structural problems. From time to time, the North Korean people find themselves mobilized for grand projects; which are endorsed by the Leader, but are not backed up by proper technical expertise, and either produce little of what is hoped for or make matters worse.
The North Korean countryside has been a popular arena for experiments of this kind. Agriculture in the DPRK was collectivized in 1953, and has never been able to fully satisfy the dietary needs of North Koreans. To eliminate the shortfall without fundamentally changing who owns the land or who controls it, the DPRK’s leadership has tried a number of schemes.
Such superficial and reckless projects such as “the all-people movement to raise chickens everywhere” in 1970, or the “four-point nature transformation” program are good examples. The latter was launched in 1981 and was a set of measures aimed at irrigation, farm mechanization, rural electrification and the development of agricultural chemicals.
“The North Korean countryside has been a popular arena for experiments of this kind”
The decades-long promotion of chemical fertilizers and the uncontrolled use of pesticides, are inseparable parts of “juch’e style agriculture”. These have resulted in nitrate pollution of the groundwater and runoff which threatens drinking water supplies in the country.
Irrigation projects initially produced a boost in productivity but proved to be unsustainable in the long run without Soviet technical and financial assistance. The consequences of another project, the wide-spread promotion of terrace fields in the 1970s under the slogan “no inch of our land should be left untilled” was even more disastrous. This undertaking, which was reported to have been devised personally by Kim Il Sung, resulted in the deforestation of the Korean countryside and erosion of the land under heavy rains.
The tendency to search for miraculous solutions to big problems has become even more pronounced since the late 1990s when the DPRK was stricken by a general economic crisis and famine. North Korean policymakers admitted economic problems (thus getting access to international food aid) but took no responsibility for them.
The blame was instead redirected to American economic sanctions and the caprice of nature. In North Korean political jargon, the famine of the mid to late 1990s has acquired a very poetic name: konanŭi haenggun, or the “arduous march”. This is a clear allusion to a heavily mythologized historical event of the same name: a march of Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla troops in Manchuria in 1938-1939.
The term konanŭi haenggun underlined the government’s assertion that it was blameless, and therefore unsurprisingly North Korean measures to achieve food security implied no fundamental change of economic and political course. The regime directed its reformist zeal to attempts at altering the diet of its subjects in favour of agriculturally less demanding foods. Among such products was not only well known corn, potato, rabbit and goat milk/meat, but such exotic foods as Jerusalem artichokes.
North Korean ideological restrictions did not allow these products to be advertised as famine-relief food which they in actual fact were. Instead, these substitutes were extolled as being better than North Korea’s staple of rice and were taken to be new symbols of the alleged prosperity of North Korean “paradise”. Supposed health benefits of the new “wonders of nature” were extolled vigorously; their production and consumption was sacralised by direct appeals to authority of the Leaders. North Korean media of all kinds, including creative arts, cinematography and literature were involved in this campaign.
“Ideological restrictions did not allow these products to be advertised as famine-relief food”
For instance, in 1998 a dramatist Yun T’ae-jong published a play entitled “A potato of luck” that extolled nutritional qualities of Jerusalem artichokes, which members of a particular collective farm started to grow on their fields following the teaching of the departed Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and orders of the Marshal (Kim Jong Il).
The play focused the fact that artichokes could (and should) be used not only as fodder in animal husbandry but also in the production of mulyǒt (syrup), toenjjang (soy bean paste) and kanjang (soy souce) for human consumption, as well as in medicine for curing burns. The play contains a song with the following lyrics:
“Pantries of every house are filled with artichokes,
That is why there are smiles on the faces of every member of our collective farm,
Our prosperous collective farm is a place of growing Jerusalem artichokes,
That is why our songs are filled with happiness”.
Characteristically, North Korean propaganda made desperate attempts to present substitute foods (the last resorts of its starving people) as actually the deeply traditional, long-lost staple foods of the Korean people.
A popular song, “Potato Pride” (composer Chang Sol-pong and lyrics by Om Ae-ran) is typical; the song tells of an extremely healthy old man who owes his health and longevity to the regular consumption of potatoes. Having received his allocated share of potatoes the old man organizes a birthday feast during which he serves his guests with potato fries, potato liquor, potato sticky cakes, potato donuts and potato noodles (dishes which were usually supposed to be cooked from rice and wheat flowers).
The song goes on to lament the bad old days when Koreans used to live hungry lives and then extolls the wise leadership of the Party, thanks to which the people of the DPRK have finally become able to grow enough potatoes. According to the song, this blessing has allowed Koreans to give birth to many children and live long healthy lives.
Some propagated substitutes were of a rather dubious quality. In 2000 Chosǒn yesul (Korean Art) published an article titled ǒnkamja kuksu, or, “noodles made of frozen potato”. According to the article, this wonderful dish has been known since the time of revolutionary fight of Kim Il Sung as “partisan noodles” or “Paektusan noodles”. Allegedly, Korean peasants intentionally left some potatoes in the fields so that Kim Il Sung’s guerilla troops could use frozen potato in winter or early spring. The article cites the words of the Fatherly Leader who claimed that:
“Noodles made of frozen potato are good for digestion, and have very authentic taste. Onkamja kuksu are tastier that normal starch noodles. It is no exaggeration to say that ǒnkamja kuksu are the tastiest noodles in the world. This is well known to Korean compatriots overseas. Noodles made of frozen potato are not only very tasty but make one miraculously strong, and lift the spirits”
“When famine was ravaging the country, North Koreans ate whatever they could to survive.”
The article describes the Korean immigrants to North America who allegedly tried to specifically freeze potatoes in their freezers, then defrost it and make noodles out of it. But the taste was not comparable to authentic ǒnkamja kuksu which could be grown only on North Korean soil.
Needless to say, the endeavours of North Korean propaganda to present these substitutes as “better than rice” and replace the real staple foods of Korea have failed.
However, North Koreans still remember the classic film “Broad Bell Flower” (1987) by Yi Chun-gu which presented a quite different picture of what were good and bad foods. The film emphasises the poverty of a war-wracked village with the images of corn porridge for dinner and baked sweet potato as snacks. The heroine of the film Song Rim responds to the temptation of her boyfriend to leave the village for the prosperous city with the proud claim: “I would rather eat corn porridge till the end of my life and stay in my hometown!”
In the late 1990s, when humble corn porridge became luxury even for Pyongyang’s inhabitants and North Korean propaganda extolled the value of frozen potato the bitter unintended irony of this was all too obvious.
Picture by Eric Lafforgue
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