North Korean media in the age of Kim Jong Un has borrowed many genres which have long been common on TV channels worldwide, but which had until recently remained conspicuously absent in the DPRK.
One of such recently introduced genres is culinary TV shows, and considering how complicated North Korean mass culture’s relations with food have traditionally been, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this innovation.
THE FOOD OF HEAVEN
When Kim Il Sung formulated his idea of a socialist paradise, he resorted to the peasant’s image of prosperity: “a bowl of meat soup with rice, silk clothes, and a house with tiled roof.”
Typical for the ever-hungry Korean peasants of past centuries, the culinary symbol of prosperity came first in his “happiness triad.”
Expectedly, Kim Il Sung chose white rice and a meat soup: refined, high calorie, and high protein food which in traditional Korea was available only to the wealthy. Things like fiber, vitamins, and other buzzwords of contemporary nutritional jargon did not feature in this formula.
But in addition to “white rice with meaty soup,” the most popular symbol of socialist abundance in North Korea has always been apples, and other countries were portrayed as being either devoid of this remarkable fruit, or subsisting on apples of a hopelessly low quality.
Japan is portrayed as a country where the apple situation is particularly drastic. In the short story “Aroma” (향기) by Hyeon Seong Ha, a teacher at a Korean school in Japan brings Korean apples to her students after a visit to the DPRK, and the children exchange their opinions in excited tones.
“Apples of the motherland are the most aromatic fruit in the world!-They are sweeter than honey! –They are better than chocolate!-They are tastier than mandarins!”
The most popular symbol of socialist abundance in North Korea has always been apples
According to the story, Koreans living in Japan cannot afford apples, and in any case, Japanese “ringo” are tasteless and sour. The author, of course, does not miss the chance to note that North Korean apples are tasty because of the care of the leader.
The film “The country I saw” (내가 본 나라) (1988) depicts the life of a progressive Japanese university professor.
Though he is, presumably, rich, his family is able to see apples only due to the mercy of their housemaid, who occasionally receives apples from her uncle’s farm. Even though he has apples on his table occasionally, he can only inhale their aroma because of his stomach and dental problems.
A trip to the DPRK resolves his enduring health problems. Using the advantages of the DPRK’s medical system, he has his stomach cured and gets new teeth for free. The professor who could not afford to visit a dentist in Japan sends an excited telegram to his family: “I eat apples here!”
North Korean mass culture approached the issue of food with great caution
TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT?
There is another side to this, of course. According to Kim Il Sung, the road which leads to the paradise of meaty soup and rice had to involve the ultimate mobilization of all people and the concentration of all resources in the state’s hands, with the consumer sector neglected.
With the people marching towards paradise, so the thinking goes, all resources should be saved, and consumption of food should be low.
Since the Great Leader was never clear on whether North Koreans had already reached the paradise, or they were still on the road to it, state propagandists had to balance these two mutually exclusive messages.
North Korean mass culture approached the issue of food with great caution. Films and works of art extolled the advantages of socialism with images of food; at the same time, they could not present their characters as indulgent gourmands.
North Korean mass culture preferred to portray socialist prosperity via images of food on the stage of production, not consumption.
Screens and pages are filled, therefore, with pictures of cows, pigs, and chicken, golden fields of rice and mountains of vegetables, but not the dishes made from these products.
And when films do include feasts, characters are never shown devouring the displayed dishes. Instead, they sit around the tables and sing revolutionary songs.
Often, the narration shows a protagonist invited to the table, but then jumping up and running to his or her duty. Another popular image is that of a character poking chopsticks into a bowl of rice absent-mindedly while contemplating more lofty subjects.
Take, for instance, the character of Si Nae in “Girls in my hometown”(내고향의 처녀들)(1991). During a family dinner, she does not eat but instead thinks of ways to help her friend be a good communist.
If a typical good character in North Korean cinema ever eats, they do it speedily and thoughtlessly, between numerous chores, often reading a book. Such is, for instance, a female character in the film “Traces of life” (생의 흔적) (1987) played by the famous actress Oh Mi Ran (오미란).
A widow of the deceased hero with two children, she devotes her life to fulfilling the goal set by the Dear Leader: to reach a record yield of ten tons of rice per hectare. She eats breakfast perching hurriedly on the kitchen counter, with a book in her hands.
GLORY TO OUR SOYBEAN PASTE
Kim Jong Il’s epoch, which began with a large-scale famine, saw a retreat from images of white rice and meat as the epitome of prosperity.
North Koreans still, in theory, lived in paradise, and propaganda chose budget abundance, focusing on cheap available foodstuffs such as potato, corn, and soy products. The real and imaginary assets of these products were widely glorified, often in contrast to rice and meat.
In the TV serial “Our chef” (2000) a female protagonist, a food researcher, stops her work on rice dishes and begins to develop potatoes as they are, allegedly, more nutritious.
A short story by Kim Myeong Hee (김명희) “The People’s Sky” (만민의 하늘, 1998) contains the daring statement that “rice with our potato is much more nutritious than boiled rice mixed with minced meat”.
North Koreans were expected to appreciate this plain food as the expression of particular care of the Dear Leader. In the 1990s the characters of the North Korean films started to gobble boiled potato, corn noodles, and soybean soup, emphasizing their delight with slurping and suckling sounds.
“Rice with our potato is much more nutritious than boiled rice mixed with minced meat”
The feasts are often precipitated with declarations of nutritious value of these cheap products, as well as their central places in Korean culinary tradition.
For instance, a film “Faithful servants” (충복) (2005), which tells the story of problems at a soybean factory, begins with the hero enjoying a home breakfast of soybean soup together with his wife. The spouses exchange passionate pro-soybean paste statements.
-For Korean people, soybean paste soup is so important. It is so authentic! It raises appetite and people’s spirits…
-Yes, and it cures colds, making you sweat.
-And if your stomach is troubled one bowl of soybean soup cures it immediately.
To add importance to these plain dishes, the new North Korean culture delegated responsibility for cooking them to male chefs. While in the Kim Il Sung era, the figure of the male chef is mostly comical, in the cinematography of Kim Jong Il’s time male chefs of potato and noodle dishes are socially respected figures.
“LET US DO IT TOGETHER”
The improvement of the economic situation has, in recent years, returned these cheap products to where they have always belonged – the positions of humble side dishes.
Now, North Korean media largely extols the virtues of isolated food products in special occasions – like seasonal exhibitions of corn dishes or all-country competitions of cooks specializing in dog meat dishes.
Overall, media has turned its focus on balanced dishes made of a variety of products, such as rice, fish, meat, and vegetables.
The recipes of these dishes are introduced in cookbooks, which are extremely popular in today’s Pyongyang, and in culinary shows such as the program “Let us do it together” (우리 함께 만들어 봅시다).
AS THE GREAT LEADER TEACHES US
Because in the DPRK there is only one celebrity, the Leader, North Korean culinary programs do not employ figures of famous chefs like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.
“Let us do it together”
The TV chefs are women, and they are modest looking, silent, and anonymous.
These bleak figures cook with the accompaniment of an invisible male narrator (or, as a variant, a couple of a male and female narrators) who tinge the recipes with glorification of the leaders or quotations of their sayings on the subject.
For instance, an introduction to corn kuksu is accompanied with remarks by Kim Jong Il about the superb quality of this dish, while pork pulkogi is combined with expressions of gratitude to Kim Jong Un whose efforts made it possible for the people to enjoy pork on regular basis.
According to the program, one recipe for carp soup (ingeokuk, 잉어국) seems to be particularly influenced by the wise teachings of leaders past and present.
Kim Jong Il recommended putting potatoes in this soup “to remove the unpleasant fishy smell” and make the taste more pleasant (here we see an echo of “potato promotion campaign” of the late 1990s-early 2000s, a favorite pet project of Kim Jong Il’s).
Kim Jong Un, too, advised cooks not to overuse the spices in order to retain the authentic taste of fish broth, and this makes the male narrator excitedly remark:
Oh, such a wise and impressively deep thought!
Unlike South Korean shows where the guests taste the ready dish, expressing their appreciation with excited grimaces and gestures, North Korean shows do not tolerate such frivolities.
“Let us do it together” is a promising sign of a new North Korea
North Korean culinary tradition differs from that of South Korea, too. Recipes for common dishes strongly vary, and so do ways of cooking. For instance, when making pulkogi, North Korean chefs do not use a marinade, but rather rub spices into the meat one by one.
As a result, these programs often see the narrators proudly emphasize the supposed authenticity of North Korean culinary tradition.
The show is peppered with comments such as: “In other countries, too, people roast meat on fire. Yet, nowhere in the world one can find as hygienic and scientific method as pulkogi. In addition, our leader taught us to use skewers for meat roasting! Only we do this!”
THE MOST SCIENTIFIC AND HYGIENIC?
Contrary to the commentary, however, the TV show hardly leaves the impression of North Korean cooking as “the most scientific and hygienic.”
To begin with, the TV chef often works with quite primitive and uncomfortable utensils. One knife serves all cooking requirements, from peeling potatoes to ginger.
A barbecue pan wisely contains holes for removing extra fat yet seems to have no tray for collecting it: one can only imagine the catastrophe of after-cooking cleaning.
The absence of pre-butchered products does not make the lives of North Korean chefs easy. To make pulkogi, a chef takes a big piece of fatty pork and slowly slices it with a big knife; to make chicken broth, she first has to prepare chicken out of the carcass with cockscomb, fingers, and intestines.
These lacunas are understandable consequences of the yet underdeveloped light and food industries of North Korea.
What is more difficult to ignore is the lack of hygiene. The kimchi makers wash the extra salt from the pickled cabbage in the water of a creek, dangerously close to their rubber boots. The process does not presuppose any extra disinfection: the cabbage will be taken out of the water, smeared in seasoning and, after some pickling, consumed raw.
After working with the piece of raw pork, the chef neither washes her hands nor changes the knife and cutting board (disposable gloves are out of the question) – and begins to slice lettuce. The lettuce would be consumed raw, together with all the bacteria of the raw pork.
Providing that the show is on central TV, one can only imagine how North Koreans cook in less public atmospheres.
But this criticism should not obscure the significance of these culinary programs: it is the economic recovery of the 2010s, combined with efforts to improve living standards, which has brought these shows to North Koreans’ television screens.
“Let us do it together” is a promising sign of a new North Korea, where food is not just a thing to be proud of or grateful for, but also a thing to be consumed and enjoyed by many.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2188 words of this article.