Koreans refer to autumn as the season when the sky is high and the horses grow fat. Thanks to the clear blue sky and cool weather, autumn in Korea is a great season for outdoor activities. It’s also harvest time, which means it is a good season for eating, not only for the horses, of course. Even after having meals, many people feel tempted to eat something else. Do North Korean people also like to eat between meals?
Today, we’ll talk about North Korean snacks with Professor Jeon Young-seon from the Institute for the Humanities and Unification at Konkuk University.
Where do North Korean people buy things? We might be reminded of the private market or jangmadang, which is similar to the traditional market in South Korea. But these days, modern shops have cropped up in the North. Large shopping complexes are found in different parts of downtown Pyongyang so citizens can buy food, clothes, daily necessities and electronic goods under one roof. Snack corners, in particular, attract a lot of consumers.
People with young children will definitely drop by the snack corners. In the past, however, it was not easy for North Koreans to get snacks.
North Korean people have been able to purchase snacks only recently. Not long ago, they regarded snacks as a gift they could receive on special occasions such as the birthdays of top leaders and founding anniversaries of the Workers’ Party or the regime. On the foundation anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union, in particular, the leader presents gifts to the people, including children. The size of the gifts shows how much the leader loves his people.
Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has hosted an exhibition of candy and cookie sculptures. Excellent works are given the awards, certificates and medals. Through this event, the country seeks to improve the quality of snack products and develop their designs.
In North Korea, snacks that were handed out to people on national holidays were regarded as a symbol to represent the top leader’s love for his people.
To commemorate the founding anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union in 2020, leader Kim Jong-un presented chewing gum under the brand name “Silver Bell” to children nationwide.
Produced by the Pyongyang Chewing Gum Factory, the “Silver Bell” gums are available in nine different flavors including strawberry, grape and apple. The special gift captured the hearts of the members of the children’s union.
North Korea has been holding the candy and cookie sculpture exhibition around the Day of the Sun on April 15, which is the birthday of regime founder Kim Il-sung. Some of the exhibited works were shaped after landmark architectures in Pyongyang and characters in North Korean animated films, adding more amusement to the country’s biggest national holiday.
It seems North Korean snacks have great political and social significance. Notably, their kinds and flavors have diversified in recent years.
North Korean snacks include bread, jelly sweets called danmuk(단묵), chips, sandwich cookies described locally as layered biscuits and yeot or Korean taffy, which is a very important snack in the North. Also, fruit jellies can be put inside candies. For example, the gugija(구기자) candy is a candy using the jelly of the Chinese matrimony vine as a filling. Meanwhile, ice pops are called Eskimo. Strawberries or lemons can be used as ingredients of Eskimo.
North Korean snacks are divided into candies, cookies, bread, yeot, jelly sweets, ice cream and beverages. In the North, where even small gum has a political significance, a variety of snack products are being produced in consideration of consumers’ tastes and preferences.
What brought about this change? It is the Kim Jong-un regime’s policy of producing goods locally and developing regional economies.
On the surface, North Korea claims that it provides various kinds of food to the people, who feel the changed social system. Internally, however, it’s all about the economy. From daily necessities and basic goods to foodstuff, there are not many things that North Korea can produce on its own. Against the backdrop, the country tries to foster the food industry strategically to promote the local production of consumer goods.
The policy also has to do with regional economies. North Korea encourages each local region to produce things using its own resources found in its mountains and fields. The foodstuff business is one of the major regional industries the country is seeking to nurture.
Kim Jong-un has stressed the need to produce goods domestically, advocating the “self-reliance-first” policy. Accordingly, North Korea introduced a new economic system called “the socialist corporate responsible management system” that incorporates some elements of capitalism in factory management, while restricting imports. The purpose is to improve the quality of locally-produced goods.
For North Koreans, food is the most popular domestic product. The KumCup Food Factory makes layered biscuits using strawberry-flavored cream as a filling, while the Seonheung Food Factory produces assorted candies. The Taedonggang Combined Fruit Processing Factory makes processed fruit, as its name indicates.
North Korea fostered the foodstuff industry in local regions in an effort to resolve polarization between urban cities and local areas, contributing to diversifying snack products. The North is making candies, cookies and ice cream using fruit and farming products produced in different regions.
South Korean snacks, in general, have simple and short names, like onion rings. But snacks in North Korea have a long name that explains the products precisely, as naming is required to follow national standards.
For example, a peanut cookie based on eggs is called the rakhwasaeng(락화생) egg cookie. Rakhwasaeng means “peanut” in Korean. The rakhwasaeng skewer refers to a thin cookie stick dusted with ground peanuts. The chocolate sweet seolgi(설기) is a chocolate-coated sponge cake, which is similar to South Korea’s Choco Pie. These snacks have yet to use any particular snack brand. Rather, their names describe what they are all about. North Korean snacks are named in this way.
North Korean snacks are named after their ingredients. When you hear the perilla seed cookie, the sesame seed cookie and the yeast cookie, you can easily guess what those cookies are made of. Similarly, you may assume that butter or steamed fruit can be used for sweet seolgi or sponge cake, just by hearing the names, the butter sweet seolgi and the steamed fruit seolgi. The red bean-stuffed bun, the strawberry jelly-stuffed bun and the apple jelly-stuffed bun indicate that the buns use those ingredients as a filling. In some cases, nutrients can be put inside the bread, as seen in the multivitamin bread and the calcium bread.
In North Korean snacks, the greatest diversities can be found in candies.
Like cookies and bread, North Korean candies are also named after their ingredients, such as the peanut candy and the bean candy. Candies can also be named after flavors, like the grape-flavored candy, the banana-flavored candy, the ginseng-flavored candy and the coffee-flavored candy. In terms of fruit milk flavors used for candies, there are strawberry, grape, pineapple and lemon. Cookie sticks are called skewers, and a lollipop is described as a skewered candy.
Candies are greatly popular in North Korea, where sweet food is not common. Enterprises in central and local regions produce hundreds of kinds of candies. Among them, the “Cow Milk Candy” produced by the Songdowon General Foodstuffs Factory is a hit product. An advertisement says that the candy is produced by processing milk from cows in dairy farms on hills in Sepo County, Kangwon Province.
Since the 2010s, different kinds of locally-made snacks have been released in the market, while beverages have also been upgraded.
It is believed that North Korea began to produce carbonated drinks that look like Coke and Sprite in January 2014 at the KumCup Food Factory in Pyongyang. After that, carbonated drinks became known to the public. It is said that about 70 kinds of new products have since been released each year. In the North, soda is called carbonated sweet water, which comes in different flavors including apple, pear or a five-flavor berry known as omija(오미자). Coke is called cocoa-flavored carbonated sweet water. Interestingly, there is mugwort-flavored carbonated drink, which is found only in North Korea.
Cocoa-flavored carbonated sweet water in North Korea is similar to Coke in terms of the design of the plastic bottle and the color. In summer, the country increases the production of Sprite, which is called “cider” in the North.
Sugar, citric acid and carbon dioxide are the main ingredients of the North Korean version of Sprite. It is similar to the colorless soda sold around the world. In the case of fruit juices, main ingredients, shelf life and storage conditions are written on their bottles.
North Korean snacks have transformed themselves significantly in recent years. Will this trend continue?
I think North Korea will place great emphasis on developing snack products. One of the serious issues faced by the country is the widening gap between Pyongyang and local regions. To remedy the problem, the North continues to develop infrastructure in farming villages, like constructing schools and homes there. It has also set up small factories producing vegetables, including napa cabbages, in various regions. Snacks play a great role in operating the factories. In related news, North Korea has stressed wheat cultivation lately.
Snacks are one of North Korea’s export items. The country is expected to produce more diverse snack products, and their product designs will also likely catch up with the latest trends quickly.
Confectionery companies in North Korea are actively developing new snack products. The KumCup Food Factory, where leader Kim Jong-un has visited twice, is producing over one-thousand snack foods and beverages. North Korean snacks reflect the country’s changed social situation and economic system.