Among the propaganda campaigns promoting various food substitutes during the “arduous march”, the most significant one was kamja (nongsa) hyǒngmyǒng, or “the potato revolution” initiated by Kim Jong Il.
While visiting Russia in 2000, Kim Jong Il expressed his concerns to a high ranking official as follows:
“You Russians have a good tradition of eating potatoes. I am also trying to introduce the potato in Korea but with little success so far. Indeed, it would be much more convenient and economical to use potatoes for feeding military units dispersed across the Northern Province Ryanggang. However, despite good potato harvests, our military requires rice, which costs a lot to transport to Ryanggang. Look at the Germans. They have grown used to the potato and it has become their staple food. Why can’t we do this in North Korea?”
Kim Jong Il’s concerns were indeed justifiable. The promotion of new products and the optimization of people’s diet has never been an easy job in Korea. It has always required special advertising efforts – much like the intensive campaign to promote flour-based food in post-war South Korea.
“Wives of North Korean refugees in the South often complain about the problems they encounter when cooking for their husbands”
Like other nations who were traditionally exposed to a rather limited range of available food products, Koreans are known as highly conservative in their culinary tastes. The first wave of South Korean businesspeople in post-perestroika Russia in the early 1990s, where Korean restaurants were unheard of at that time, often preferred to starve than to eat Russian and Western food.
Wives of North Korean refugees in the South often complain about the problems they encounter when cooking for their husbands. These ex-North Koreans tend to refuse to try anything new, and instead demand the exact reproduction of dishes that their mothers used to cook for them back in the DPRK.
The traditionally negative attitude to the potato perfectly illustrates this Korean culinary conservatism. While cultivating rice requires plenty of effort which is often not rewarded by good results, the easily available potato is still undeservingly neglected as a low quality product.
I still remember sceptical looks which South Koreans threw at me in the late 1990s when I mentioned that in my homeland back in Russia people preferred potato to white rice. By way of consolation, my South Korean friends often quoted an old Korean belief that potato dishes had a reputation for having a positive effect on a women’s looks. Our comparative culinary talks often finished with their kind-hearted comments such as “poor thing, at least you can enjoy rice while here in Seoul”.
POTATO: A LAST RESORT
Koreans tended to view the potato as a subsistence food for bad times, requiring skilful cooking to make it digestible. This perception is clearly demonstrated in a passage from Kim Il Sung’s memoirs about his early years in a guerilla camp in Manchuria, where his wife Kim Jong Suk was a cook in the camp at the time. Referring to Kim Jong Suk’s care of her comrades, Kim Il Sung recollects:
“Once there was not a grain in the camp, and we had only potatoes to eat. Everybody knows that if a person eats only potatoes for a few days he will get sick and lose his appetite. Kim Jong Suk was very upset by the fact that she had to feed her comrades with potatoes exclusively. She dedicated herself to the task of cooking appetising meals for the guerillas. She grated potatoes and made pancakes from them, or stuffed potato buns with wild grasses. Because of her endeavors, our soldiers were able to eat potato dishes”.
For decades, North Korean propaganda upheld this traditional attitude to the potato as a last resort for the poor. In an episode of the North Korean feature film “The Forest Sways” (1982), a male protagonist who works in the reforestation of war-devastated rural Korea gives his female colleague a small bag of potatoes as a farewell present, accompanying this modest gift with an apology “we have nothing but potatoes here”.
“EQUAL TO WHITE RICE”
In the 1990s, Kim Jong Il was determined to reverse this attitude, raising the status of the potato in Korean eyes by promoting the motto that “the potato is equal to white rice”. The official start of kamja (nongsa) hyǒngmyǒng was marked by the leader’s visit to Taehongdan county in Ryanggang province in October 1998, and his call to turn this poor desolated region into a potato-growing area through the labour of a large number of resettled newly demobilised soldiers.
Kim Jong Il’s ultimate goal was to extend the Taehongdan experience to the whole country, with the goal of making the potato the “king of the fields” all over North Korea and in the long run, to turn the DPRK into the “potato kingdom of Asia”.
Since the late 1990s, images of potatoes have flooded North Korean visual arts, literary texts and cinematography. “A sea of potato flowers in Taehongdan” was announced to be “one of the eight attractions of our glorious military first era.” Numerous paintings glorified dwellers of Taehongdan: recently demobilized soldiers and naval officers with their new families, surrounded by “a sea of potato flowers”.
Information about the nutritional benefits of potatoes was customarily included in North Korean works of literature and the arts in typical product placement fashion. The film “One Schoolgirl’s Diary” (2006) contains one such characteristic reference to potatoes. When preparing to meet their father who is returning home from a business trip, a family cooks kamja yǒt (potato taffy). This episode is accompanied by the following dialogue:
“Grandma, is potato taffy really good for your health?”
“Yes, and it tastes good too. Our ancestors often ate it to be strong.”
“How tasty this taffy is! Nobody can match our grandma in cooking taffy.”
This episode advertises potatoes in the well-known traditions of TV commercials, connecting the promoted product to a wide variety of advertising tropes, such as that of health, tradition, respect for the elderly and care of the young, an irresistible taste, and a cheerful family atmosphere. The episode conveniently overlooks the fact that the traditional Korea taffy was normally supposed to be cooked from glutinous white rice, not from potato.
The life of potato-growers in Taehongdan was broadly covered by North Korean media as being allegedly sacralised by the direct involvement of the Dear Leader. The houses of demobilised soldiers in Taehongdan were reported to be furnished by Kim Jong Il personally.
North Korean media constantly updated the public about a case in 1999 when Kim Jong Il visited the family of a newly demobilised soldier and potato grower in Taehongdan, where was approached by the soldier’s expectant wife. The woman asked the leader to name her yet unborn baby, and the Dear Leader invented the names of Taehongi, in the event it was a boy and Hongdangi if it were a girl. Later, the woman gave birth to twins and named them in accordance with the Leader’s advice.
“It is clear that this campaign has failed to turn the DPRK into “the potato kingdom of Asia”
In many regards, the promotion of the adventurous “Taehongdan spirit” and “the potato revolution” bears strong similarities with the movement to cultivate virgin lands (tzelina) and the promotion of corn in the USSR of the 1950s. The North Korean slogan “the potato is a king of the fields” echoes the popular Soviet slogan of the 1950s, “corn is the queen of the fields”. Like the Soviet promotion of “the spirit of tzelina conquerors”, the North Korean campaign to promote the Taehongdan spirit widely employed an imagery of spring, youth, new couples and newborn babies, and connected these positive symbols of innovation and fertility to the potato.
Today, fifteen years after the official start of the potato revolution, it is clear that this campaign has failed to turn the DPRK into “the potato kingdom of Asia”. However, the question remains unanswered as to what extent the potato revolution has succeeded in altering the culinary traditions and mentality of North Koreans.
Preliminary surveys of North Korean refugees in the South show that the younger generation of North Koreans whose childhood and youth happened during the ‘arduous march’ tends to perceive the potato as an acceptable food although still not equal with rice. At the same time, refugees who belong to the older generation tend to mock “the potato campaign” as a pitiful attempt by North Korean policy-makers to make a virtue out of dire necessity.
Main picture: Ray Cunningham
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