Food, clothes and shelter are essential for human survival. Among them, food reflects the characteristics of a country well. In Korea’s 5,000-year history, dietary culture has been considered to be one of the common assets shared by South and North Korea. However, their food culture has evolved differently since national division.
Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s food culture from Professor Jeon Young-seon from the Institute for the Humanities and Unification at Konkuk University.
There’s a saying that “Koreans live thanks to bapsim.” The word “bapsim” refers to the strength gained by eating cooked rice. As the saying indicates, rice is the key staple grain for Koreans. But income growth in South Korea has increased meat consumption, while more and more people eat food made with flour, instead of rice, as they have become used to Westernized eating habits.
I often eat ramyeon, the instant noodles, or tteokbokki at home. Outside, I frequently eat bread. It is easy and convenient to get those foods. I think I consume flour-based food at least two to three times a week.
Changes in dietary habits are also taking place in North Korea.
North Korea’s food policy changed after the Arduous March in the 1990s. Previously, the country advocated the so-called Juche farming method aimed at self-sufficiency in food production. But after the Arduous March, the North began to change its crop policy. It raised more rabbits and ostriches, while expanding fish farming to provide protein to the people. The policy brought about changes in the country’s dietary culture.
While enduring the extreme economic difficulty known as the “Arduous March” in the 1990s, North Korea became keenly aware that the food issue might threaten the regime. Therefore, the country’s food policy focused more on resolving the food problem. Along with the policy change, a gradual recovery in the local economy gave rise to a variety of food options and new food culture.
In 2012, when the Kim Jong-un regime started, North Korea sought more legal protection for non-material cultural heritage in order to promote its dietary culture.
North Korea has material and non-material cultural heritage, which is equivalent to South Korea’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage, respectively.
In North Korea, something that proves helpful for people’s lives is designated as non-material heritage, which values the improvement or expansion of traditional culture in a modern may, rather than the simple preservation of such culture. Food culture is classified as non-material heritage. Among the items that have been designated as non-material heritage, those that deserve protection are defined as state-level non-material heritage. According to the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the national non-material heritage committee, which is a non-standing committee, decides on items that merit protection. There are regulations governing relevant policies.
In North Korea, food culture comprises one axis of non-material heritage. Diverse ethnic foods, the making of jang, which refers to Korean sauces or pastes made from fermented soybeans, and the making of kimchi are registered as non-material heritage. The tradition of kimchi-making, among others, made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
South Korea’s “Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi” was inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, while North Korea’s kimchi-making tradition was added to the same UNESCO list in 2015.
In North Korea, locals consume kimchi as a basic side dish during the long winter, which lasts for nearly six months. There are many dishes using the fermented vegetable food, including cold kimchi noodle soup. In South Korea, kimchi experts are defined and protected as culinary masters who contribute to inheriting and developing traditional Korean food. In the North, the tradition of kimchi-making is recognized as non-material heritage.
Kimjang refers to a time-honored practice of making a large amount of kimchi for a long winter. In North Korea, kimchi made during kimjang can sustain locals through long winter months. So, it is common to make kimchi with hundreds of heads of cabbage during the kimjang season.
North Koreans, in general, carry out kimjang between October and November to make various kinds of kimchi.
There are so many different kinds of kimchi. In winter, many people make whole napa cabbage kimchi, water-based white radish kimchi and cubed radish kimchi. They are salty and have a refreshing tangy flavor.
Kimchi made during the kimjang season is called a “half-year food” in North Korea because there are very few side dishes, other than kimchi, in winter.
In North Korea, just like its southern neighbor, kimchi-making methods and tastes vary a little from region to region. Pyongyang is famous for dongchimi, cold water-based kimchi made with white radish, while the border town of Gaeseong is known for bossam kimchi made by wrapping various fillings with cabbage leaves. Mountainous northern regions including Ryanggang Province are represented by kimchi made with gat or mustard leaf. North Koreans are dependent on kimchi as their main source of food during the winter.
With the UNESCO inscription, the tradition of making kimchi, one of the favorite foods for North Koreans, was reborn as cultural heritage of humanity. North Korea has another food item that was recognized as UNESCO intangible heritage.
The Pyongyang Raengmyon custom was registered in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2022. UNESCO made the decision in recognition of the historical significance of the cold buckwheat noodles and the preservation of relevant knowledge and techniques for making the dish. Without a doubt, North Korea is very proud of the Pyongyang-style cold noodles.
North Korea even has a song “Pyongyang Raengmyon is the Best,” indicating that local residents’ love for the food is extraordinary.
Okryugwan, a restaurant known for Pyongyang Raengmyon, sells more than 10-thousand bowls of cold noodles a day. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television explains the history of the cold buckwheat noodles served in savory, beef-based broth mixed with the dongchimi radish water kimchi.
Xu Jing, an envoy from the Chinese Song Dynasty, visited the Korean kingdom of Goryeo in 1123. A record shows that the Chinese envoy listed the noodle dish as the best food among ten famous local foods in Gaeseong.
The cold noodle dish’s history dates back to as early as the years of the Goryeo kingdom. In old times, Koreans would eat the long, thin strips of noodles, wishing for long life, on the day before the 15th day of the first lunar month. On happy occasions, they would enjoy the food with relatives and neighbors to share joy and promote unity. Against the historical background, Pyongyang Raengmyon is considered a national food representing North Korea.
Since the enactment of the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage in 2012, the scope of North Korea’s national foods has expanded.
North Korea has reinterpreted some of the historical traditions under Kim Jong-un’s rule. The country’s historical evaluations are mostly based on the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. North Korea believes that most cultural traditions were completed during the Goguryeo era and were later passed down to the Goryeo kingdom.
North Korea used to perceive the Joseon Dynasty rather negatively, in light of class division between the ruling class and the subjugated class. Traditional food from Joseon, along with clothes, received negative reviews.
But since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, North Korea has tried to recognize the cultural traditions of Joseon in many ways. For example, Kim Il-sung University has introduced the traditional Korean court cuisine of “sinseollo(신선로)” as a global food. North Korea explains that the royal hot pot uses a variety of materials in a unique way to add a distinctive flavor. It also says the food is high in nutrients and the pot containing the food looks fabulous. It claims that people can taste the delicacy of Joseon and the food is known worldwide now.
Sinseollo means “a Taoist hermit’s brazier.” During the years of former leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea had a negative view of the court food from the Joseon Dynasty. But today, it is one of the most popular menus served at the famous Okryugwan restaurant. As more and more food traditions have received positive reviews, various customs have been registered as non-material heritage.
North Korea says that beekeeping has developed since the Gojoseon era as a proud tradition, from which people can obtain various productions and fruits. The tradition of beekeeping was registered as non-material heritage in 2017. Also, the custom of making salted and fermented food with small shrimp caught in the West Sea earned the same designation.
When deciding on intangible cultural heritage, South Korea focuses on historical significance. In North Korea, on the other hand, food enjoyed by the general public is included in the list of non-material heritage. North Korea holds cooking contests to explore new food. Food items that receive positive reviews at the contests might be designated as non-material heritage.
North Korea hosts a large-scale food exhibition, where chefs selected from central agencies and local provinces showcase traditional food and local specialties. About half of the food items shown in the exhibition are classified as non-material heritage. Why does North Korea try to explore national food, going as far as to hold cooking contests?
First, North Korea seeks to raise public awareness of excellent national culture so the people can feel proud. By exploring the nation’s superior culture and letting the people know that, the North reminds its people that they live in the era of the “our nation-first” policy.
Second, the country hopes to improve the consumption system. Restaurants in North Korea are run by the state. To help the restaurants do their business well, it is necessary to develop various food items and extract some meaning from them. That’s why North Korea holds cooking contests.
North Korea carries out the policy of promoting food culture for political and economic reasons, with a number of food-related traditions registered as non-material heritage. But the country is tightening its reins over the management of cultural assets. It remains to be seen whether this move will actually contribute to improving the people’s dietary life and inheriting tradition.