Lee Oui-ryuk was on the verge of dying of starvation when he stole a block of tofu in a market in North Korea at the height of a nationwide famine. Too weak to run away after he swiped the food, Lee continued eating as the seller cried and beat him with a metal rod, staining the white tofu red with his blood.
At nine years old he knew the theft would end in violence, but in his head he repeated over and over: “Even if you are beaten, keep eating.” He eventually passed out and when he awoke, took a morsel that remained on his hand to his sister.
“Even today I don’t have the words to describe the hunger,” Lee said. “My head was too big for my body because I was so malnourished and my neck couldn’t support the weight, which meant my head was always at a slant.”
More than two decades later Lee is no longer starving. The 31-year-old lives in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, where he can have virtually any dish delivered to his home with a few taps on his smartphone. But his experiences in the North forever changed his relationship with food and he often craves dishes invented by a chronically hungry nation.
“In North Korea every single thing I ate was related to my life, and even the smallest things would seem really big,” he said. “But here I just eat food because it’s a part of living.”
Many of the roughly 30,000 North Korean refugees living in the South are awestruck when they first arrive at seeing supermarkets stocked with items unseen back home. But they also find it difficult to cope with the plethora of choice and still carrying the trauma of growing up hungry.
North Korea has struggled to feed its people for more than two decades and a famine in the 1990s left as many as one million dead – about 5% of the population at the time. An ineffective state distribution system means more than 10m people are still undernourished according to the UN World Food Programme, which says “many people suffer from chronic malnutrition due to lack of essential proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals”.
While elites and top officials have access to imported foods like pizza and coffee, most people cannot afford staples such as rice, and eat mostly corn instead.
‘I can never throw away rice’
North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung promised his people prosperity in the form of daily meals of “rice and meat stew”, saying it was the “long-cherished desire of our people”. The phrase has been repeated by successive generations of the Kim family as a promise of a better future they have yet to deliver.
But as food, and especially meat, became scarce during the famine, North Koreans invented a slew of new dishes with names reminiscent of better times: tofu “sushi”, rice “meatballs” and manmade meat with rice, where the leftover dregs from making soybean oil are pressed into a paste, stuffed with rice and topped with chilli sauce, intending to mimic the texture of meat. The dish is so popular some restaurants in the South even illegally import ingredients from North Korea, risking heavy fines and possible prison time.
Kwon Taejin, an agriculture expert at the GS&J Institute, a government-funded thinktank, has adopted six North Korean children and said each one has gone through three stages of eating habits after arriving in the South.
“When they first arrive there are so many different options, that they don’t know what to eat,” he said. “But they always crave rice, so they pretty much eat mostly rice for the first two to three months, even if there are many other options available. And then after this phase, they start missing food they had back home.”
Kim, a waitress who asked to be identified only by her surname, only ate rice a few times a year when she was in North Korea, instead subsisting mostly on corn. When she first arrived in the South in 2017 she was “completely awed” by the supermarkets, eating a constant stream of spicy Jin instant noodles for months before she became sick of the taste.
“No matter how much I worked in North Korea I could never afford rice,” she said. “So now I can never throw away rice, even if I order too much.”