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  • Writer's pictureAida Zul

What do we know about North Koreans?


Source: Micha Brändli on Unsplash


With the growing might of the K-Wave, we’ve all become easily acquainted with the latest trends coming out of South Korea. But what about its neighbour on the other side of the 38th parallel? When you think of North Korea, perhaps you picture the massive metallic bodies of nuclear missiles or the striking image of the state’s current figurehead, Kim Jong Un. Maybe you think about some of the regime’s most absurd laws, like how people must maintain hairstyles that have been officially approved by the state.


But have you ever wondered who the North Korean people are, and what their lives are like? This piece will explore just that — so get ready to take a closer look into North Korean culture, society and life.


Food


It’s impossible to discuss North Korea’s most iconic dishes without talking about Pyongyang cold noodles. Korean-style cold noodles, also known as naengmyeon, is estimated to have been around from as early as the 17th century. Historical records from the 18th century show that soju, bibimbap and naengmyeon were recognized as the three specialties of Pyongyang, and that Pyongyang was regarded as the city that made the best naengmyeon. Pyongyang is therefore credited as the birthplace of the Korean-style cold noodles that we know today.


The noodles in pyongyang naengmyeon are made from buckwheat, and are served in a cold broth with chunks of ice. The noodles are then topped with julienned cucumbers, radish kimchi, Korean pears and sliced beef, chicken or pork.


Pyongyang cold noodles, as seen on the show ‘On My Way To Meet You’ | Source: 채널A 캔버스


While this dish is not difficult to find in South Korea today, many resettled North Koreans have claimed that it unfortunately still does not capture the authentic taste of true pyongyang naengmyeon.


On the show “On My Way To Meet You”, Yun-seon Lee expresses her disappointment at not being able to find true Pyongyang cold noodles after resettling in South Korea. | Source: 채널A 캔버스


North Korean kimchi also differs distinctly to its counterpart in South Korea. While South Korean kimchi tends to have a spicier and sweeter taste, North Korean kimchi is often said to have a “cleaner” but also tangier taste. This is because less seasoning, particularly gochugaru (red chilli pepper flakes) is added during the kimchi-making process.



Even among the different provinces in North Korea, kimchi varies in taste. Kimchi from the northern parts of North Korea, like Pyeongan and Hamgyeong, is said to have a fresher taste. In comparison, southern provinces tend to produce kimchi with a stronger umami flavour.


Language


Although North and South Korea use the same writing system, the two countries use very different variations of Korean. After their formal separation, the North Korean government pursued many policies which aimed to nativize the language. This meant the removal of many loanwords, in an effort to preserve the “linguistic purity” of the Korean language.


This emphasis on “pure Korean” can be observed in the language North Koreans use to this day. While South Koreans refer to padded coats using the Konglish term “pae-ding” (패딩, from the English word “padding”), North Koreans call them “dong-bok” (동복, literally “winter clothing”). South Koreans also call Coca Cola “kol-la” (콜라), but North Koreans use the term “koko-a tan-san dan-mul” (코코아 탄산 단물, literally “sweet carbonated cocoa water”).


The loanwords used by North and South Koreans also differ considerably in their origins. The comparatively few North Korean loanwords have borrowed more from Russian, while South Korean loanwords have drawn more greatly from English and Japanese. This is why North Korean lingo has words like “wal-len-kki” (왈렌끼, from the Russian word for long boots) and “gob-se-keu” (곱세크, from Gobseck, a fictional character that was well-known in the Soviet Union and whose name became synonymous with being a penny-pincher).


Youtubers Dave and Nara Kang explore similarities and differences between South and North Korean dialects. | Source: 데이브 World of Dave


Pop culture

North Korean television offers only a limited number of programmes, broadcasted across four state-owned channels. Most importantly, all of these programmes function to endorse the regime in one way or another. Even children’s cartoons promote state ideology, values and moral code. The popular series 'Squirrel and Hedgehog', for example, took on the form of an allegory with different animals representing different powers. The squirrels and hedgehogs represented the North Koreans; the mice, South Koreans; Uncle Bear, the Soviet Union; and the wolves, the Americans.


Additionally, North Korea has no internet — citizens only have access to a limited national intranet service known as ‘Gwangmyeong’. With the state’s firm control on media and network access, North Koreans can only watch state-approved videos at most on the intranet. Music by North Korean artists is also shared through the intranet, the most well-known example being the North Korean pop girl group Moranbong Band. North Korean music is always meant to glorify the state and artists must use their real names, meaning no stage names are allowed.


Despite the harsh laws against foreign media, films and music from the outside have been able to make their way into North Korea. These have typically been smuggled across the Chinese border through CDs and DVDs, although USBs are increasingly used for their smaller size and greater storage space. They are then sold through black markets, which have only grown more pervasive over the years in defiance of socialist law.


The youth, a.k.a. the Jangmadang generation


In response to the great famine of the 1990s, the North Korean youth took matters into their own hands and built an informal economy known as the Jangmadang. “Jangmadang” literally translates to “market grounds”, and refers to the markets that sprung up when North Korean youth started trading among themselves. Although all private trade is either illegal or highly regulated, the scale of the jangmadang grew so large that authorities could not effectively curb them.


Joo Yang describes how the markets are essentially a fixture in North Koreans’ lives now, saying that you can buy everything there except a cat’s horn — which of course, does not exist. | Source: Liberty in North Korea


The growing ubiquity of foreign media in black markets, combined with their experience of suffering during the famine, has led this generation of North Koreans to become disillusioned with the state. As a result, young North Koreans have been gradually defying the government more and more. They draw the curtains, and under blankets they drape over themselves and their chunky televisions, they watch shows and films from all over the world. Even at the risk of having their clothes confiscated by the police, they copy the fashion trends they see in South Korean dramas.


Many analysts and scholars following the North Korean economy have expressed that these jangmadang may be the key to opening up the state. In their documentary ‘The Jangmadang Generation’, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) calls the youth “the greatest force of change that North Korea has ever seen”.


Resettling North Koreans and their journeys


North Koreans who decide to leave the country usually cross the Chinese border, across either the Amnok River or the Tumen River. Many typically wait for river to freeze over, so they can run quickly on the ice. As there are border guards stationed to shoot at anyone who tries to cross, those fleeing often bribe the guards in advance, or simply take their chances. These North Koreans may or may not pay a broker to help them, but if they do, this can cost them up to thousands of dollars.


After escaping to China, many North Koreans make their journey downwards into Southeast Asia, into countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. From there, they may be intercepted by NGOs like LiNK which help them continue their journey to South Korea or the US.


A map comparing a typical escape route to that of "Faith"'s, a North Korean who escaped in 2017. | Source: GQ


In rarer cases, some North Koreans cross the 38th parallel directly into South Korea. This is usually ruled out as an option by escapees because of the heavily guarded nature of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). While the risks run extremely high, individuals like former North Korean spy Chul-eun Lee take them on in search of a better life. In 2016, Lee and his friend swam six kilometres in freezing seawater from North to South Korea before being rescued by a South Korean vessel.


Chul-eun Lee tells Asian Boss about his escape from North Korea. When he finally made contact with South Korean officers, he was told that he and his friend had momentarily disappeared from the South Koreans’ radar — they had swam for so long that their body temperatures dropped past the point of thermal detection. | Source: Asian Boss


Even after leaving North Korea and resettling elsewhere, their trials do not end there. Many suffer from mental health issues due to their trauma, coupled with the sudden need to adjust to a completely new environment. NGOs try to fill in these gaps by helping North Koreans adapt to the societies they came into, with language and assimilation classes. Even so, NGOs need to keep re-evaluating how they can better respond to North Korean escapees given their unfathomably stressful experiences.


Our understanding of the North Korean people would not be complete without those who have left their home country and willingly told their stories. While their stories are not always easy to hear, they must be listened to, and each detail of their lives allows us to conceive a more holistic picture of who the North Koreans are.

 

The dominant narrative surrounding North Korea mostly concerns the state’s hard power and eccentric leader. While these are also important facets, an overt focus on this narrative takes away from getting to know who the North Koreans are as people with their own individual lives, thoughts and feelings. This article hopes to shed a little more light on who the North Korean people are, and offer a more humanizing perspective.

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