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View more articles by JH Ahn
JH Ahn was an NK News contributor based in Seoul. He previously worked as an interpreter for United States Forces Korea.
“Thank you, General, for all these great snacks!” joked one defector when she saw the packages filled with recently purchased Pyongyang-made snacks and candies.
Light was shed on the snack business in North Korea – not considered a national priority until recently – when Kim Jong Un visited Pyongyang’s KumCup Food Factory in January 2015, where he ordered an improvement in both the quality and quantity of their products, which range from breads to snacks to sausages.
A recent interview published at the Choson Sinbo read that the KumCup Food Factory’s products have gone through major improvements, as the leader ordered, and are now producing more than 400 different kinds of food products, of which snacks are a big part, at their factory.
To confirm the North Korean government’s claims, an American businessman, who asked to remain anonymous but who from time to time makes trips from Washington to Pyongyang, went to shops in the North Korean capital in April and purchased 12 different kinds of cookies, biscuits, crackers and candies, which the local shop worker introduced as “the most popular products among Pyongyang citizens.”
TASTIER, BETTER, PRETTIER
“We used to get snack packages, including some of these on Kim Il Sung’s birthday and Kim Jong Il’s birthday,” said a female defector who left Hyeryong in 2011 and who is now attending Sogang University.
She added that the Rakwasaeng Satang, a sweet sugar-coated peanut candy was always in the “birthday packages” from the two leaders, and added that the material used for the candy had certainly gotten better from the time when she used to eat them in North Korea.
“What we used to get in North Korea did not have a peanut in it, but a smaller yellow bean that you use to make tofu,” she said.
‘I don’t think these should be treated as the standard of overall quality of North Korea snacks, as they are from the richest part of the country, Pyongyang’
While eating Chamkkaegwaja (sesame cracker) – flavored with sesame grains and a bit of sugar – another female defector who also used to live in Hyeryong until 1999 said that she is amazed and envious of what today’s Pyongyang citizens are able to buy from their local markets.
“Pyongyang citizens are living so well!” she said. “My uncle used to run a food factory and I remember eating very poor quality candies which easily crumbled in my mouth.
However, “I don’t think these should be treated as the standard of overall quality of North Korea snacks, as they are from the richest part of the country, Pyongyang,” she said.
“Cookies or snacks could be seen only twice a year, and that is if you had children in your household. As I remember it, both the quality and quantity of snack packages got worse as the children grew older, and that tendency became more evident during the Arduous March.”
It was not only the contents of the snacks that have gotten better, but what the snacks came in, as well. Another male defector, who asked that no additional information about him be revealed, added that the quality of the packaging and its designs had gotten much better than he had ever imagined.
It was not only the contents of the snacks that got better, but what was covering the snacks as well. Another male defector, who did not wish to reveal any information about him, added that the quality of packaging and its designs certainly got better, far better than he could’ve have imagined.
“When I was in North Korea, cookies used to not have any individual wrapping papers like these. A chunk of cookies would just be wrapped in one big plastic bag, not like these, which have individual (wrappers) for each,” said he.
“You see these thin foil-like wrappers from Dalgalgwaja (egg cracker)? These kind of thin wrappers were what were used in the past for packing most of snacks, but these wrappers used for this Chocolate Cookie are far superior. I am amazed.”
LONG WAY TO GO
Students laughed when they saw the Chocolate Cookie, one of products coming from Pyongyang’s KumCup Food Factory, and said they did not see these “relatively Western-looking” products when they were in North Korea.
But they also added that the package’s design was most likely taken from South Korea’s popular snacks, which they said shared almost the same look.
After unpacking all 12 different snacks, most of the interviewees reached to the conclusion that North Korea is also copying some Chinese products. Those who came from the China-North Korea border regions pointed to two products as definitive copycats of Chinese snacks they used to eat in North Korea.
‘North Korea often imitates the foreign products and I think many of these are copycats of Chinese products’
“Are these really North Korean ones? From Hyeryong, the border city, we used to import and eat different kinds of Chinese snacks, which just looked and tasted like these,” said the female defector who left Hyeryong in 2011, while observing Basakgwaja (waffle cracker) and Uyugwaja (milk biscuit).
“North Korea often imitates the foreign products and I think many of these are copycats of Chinese products,” she said.
All interviewees agreed that the ingredients had gotten better, leading to a better taste, but said it is still far from reaching how the South Korean cookies tastes.
“These … would taste awesome if you were living in North Korea. But compared to (South Korea), honestly these are not that great,” said a male defector who was in his early 20s.
However, one male defector who came to Seoul in December 2014, said that the top-notch North Korean products were not included in the package that NK News brought.
“I don’t see the most expensive and the tastiest ones here,” said the defector, who comes from Hamhung the one of North Korea’s wealthiest cities.
“When I was living in Hamhung, there were better snacks than the products made from KumCup Food Factory,” said he, adding that he used to buy North Korean snacks which were more expensive and tastier than the Chinese products.
All South Korean interviewees said the Chamkkaegwaja (sesame cracker) made from Seonheung Food Factory was perfect for their tasts, saying “it is richly flavored with high portion of sesame.”
However, in most cases, South Korean-born students –none of whom had tried North Korean snacks before – all quickly lost interest in North Korean products once they’d had a bite.
“When I first saw their cases, I thought … these were going to taste good,” said Park Tae-soon, a student attending Hanyang University, who also introduced himself as a maniac for all South Korean snacks.
“I find their tastes varying from one extreme to another, with some completely lacking any tastes while some having just too much sugar or strong flavor,” said Park, referring to the Rakwasaeng Satang, the sugar-coated peanut candy as too sweet for South Korean taste.
Park Sun-young, the other student from Hanyang University, also said that the wheat components in North Korean products were just too high for her.
‘Well, despite the poor taste and texture, the North Korean bag is at least filled with snacks, not half nitrogen gas as it would be with South Korean ones’
“I think these are what … 1970s South Korean snacks would have tasted like. Generally, most of them lack of any rich flavor. I think the hard textures of these snacks, in a way, represent the living condition of the North.”
While most of the products were not as popular as South Koreans’, most interviewees’ agreed that the North is doing better than the South on at least one count: Their bags aren’t overfilled with nitrogen, making the snacks look much bigger than they really are.
“Well, despite the poor taste and texture, the North Korean bag is at least filled with snacks, not half nitrogen gas as it would be with South Korean ones,” said Park Tae-soon, with other interviewees agreeing.
Featured image: NK News, JH Ahn