North Korea is constantly trying to convince the rest of the world that life in the Hermit Kingdom is not that bad. In Pyongyang, new projects like water parks, 4D cinemas, and a brand new dolphinarium suggest that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is determined to change its image from a famine and drought-plagued dystopia to a modern worker’s paradise. And while millions of North Koreans are literally starving to death, food remains a big part of the propaganda battle.
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At least, that’s what Andrew Nowlan uncovered after spending five days in North Korea on a state-sponsored trip. The 36-year-old from Nova Scotia, Canada, teaches cultural studies in Osaka, Japan and didn’t miss the opportunity to take a “Victory Tour” of North Korea—a state-sponsored celebration of what the DPRK considers an “epic victory” against the imperialist American aggressor and the South Korean puppets. During Nowlan’s five day trip, the world’s weirdest regime showed off not only its military might, but also its culinary offerings in a continuous effort to prove that food is plentiful in Kim Jong-un’s empire.
MUNCHIES: So how did you get permission to enter North Korea?
Andrew Nowlan: It was actually really easy. I went through a tour operator out of Beijing and gave them a couple thousand dollars and they sorted everything out. And from that point on, everything was included: the hotel, the Victory Tour, and three meals a day.
Why did you go to North Korea?
It’s just a place I’ve been interested in for a while. It’s a very intriguing, mysterious country. It intrigued me and I wanted to see myself what it would be like. But I also knew it would be a highly sanitized version of North Korea.
What were you expecting before you got there?
I was expecting a façade of prosperity and success of the Kim regime. Of course, you watch movies about North Korea and that leads you to believe to what you might expect. I was expecting to scratch the surface and find a lot of poverty, some signs of the famine of the 90s. I was going in with a pretty open mind.
Where did you stay while you were there?
Four of the five nights, we stayed at the Deluxe Hotel in Pyongyang which is on an island. It was pretty spartan. There were frequent power outages, and at one point, I even electrocuted myself a little.
So how would you describe a typical hotel breakfast in Pyongyang?
It’s pretty standard fare. It wasn’t always the best quality, but it was plentiful. It was generally boiled vegetables, one fried meat, some soup, tofu, and omelettes. But at breakfast there were also signs that things aren’t as plentiful there as in other parts of the world. When I ordered, they reused the same tea bag for three different guests of the hotel. Someone in my group claimed that the people who were working there would eat the food that was left by the guests.
Did you get the impression that they were trying to impress you with their food?
They do make an effort to make sure that you sample all the food that they have to offer. And I think they take pride in offering as much food as you can eat. I think they see us as a conduit to the outside world and possibly the belief that people will spread the word that North Korea is a prosperous society, or a worker’s paradise, where people are happy. That’s the image they want to project, but if you do a bit a research it’s easy to see the truth of their predicament.
What were your favourite meals?
The best meals that we had were barbecued meat. We had chicken, beef, and duck. Another staple of North Korea is cold buckwheat noodles. It’s like Japanese soba noodles presented in a broth and then you have pork on top with some vegetables and the gochujang. That was nice.
That sounds delicious, but were there any offerings that puzzled you?
The dog soup was interesting, which was offered at one of the lunches for an extra 5 euros. The default lunch was a duck, but we actually had to upgrade to an offering of dog. It was presented to us in kind of a red pepper broth that wasn’t too spicy, cut-up, lean meat pieces along with liver and intestine. They don’t leave anything to waste. One evening someone had dog penis garnished with green onion and I tried it, purely out of curiosity.
What does dog penis taste like?
It was soft and chewy and a distinct meaty flavour. It tasted a bit like lamb but the texture was very different. And it left a strange film in my mouth that was a little bit troubling and I just pounded back a beer right after because my gag reflex was starting to kick in a little bit. The next day, my stomach didn’t feel so stable.
I would need a couple of drinks after that, too. Did you drink a lot while you were there?
Absolutely. I think in the DPRK they consider beer to be just kind of a soft drink. Most of the time, they had big bottles and steins filled with local North Korean beer. Every meal came with beer. If you wanted more, it was roughly two Canadian dollars for a large bottle of beer.
Were you allowed to let loose a little when you were knocking back North Korea’s finest brews?
Every night we would get back to the hotel but you’re not allowed to leave the premises, it’s almost like a mini city. You have a casino, bars, even a rotating restaurant at the top. Most people would go to the bar. The hotel had a little brewery in the back that they gave us a quick tour of. People would sit around drinking, but one of our handlers or minders would never be too far away. They would be drinking with us.
Rotating restaurants are the coolest. Did you eat at the rotating restaurant?
It seems like every large building in Pyongyang had a rotating restaurant on top. It looks like the rotating restaurant capital of the world. We actually never made it to any of the rotating restaurants, so it’s still uncertain whether or not these restaurants are actually functioning rotating restaurants.
That’s wild. If they did have the rotating restaurants, they probably would have loved to show them off?
Exactly. Your tour is just places that they are proud of. You would think that they would show you to the rotating restaurants if they were functioning.
Is North Korean food as spicy as South Korean food?
I’ve lived in South Korea and the food is just “knock-your-socks-off” spicy. But in North Korea everything is very mild. That really surprised me about the food there. The kimchi, thegochujang, which is the fermented spice paste. Everything was quite bland. I don’t know if that’s because they figured foreign tourists can’t handle a little spice, but even after requesting more spice to liven our dishes, it was still pretty bland.
Were you ever forced to eat food?
No! Every day we were asked about our dietary restrictions. If someone in our group was a vegetarian, the restaurants would accommodate them. So there was never a case where people were forced to eat something. They were quite accommodating.
Did you ever feel bad about eating and drinking so much in such a famished country?
There is a slight sense of guilt because we are being fed very well. And, knowing that millions of people outside of Pyongyang are suffering famine-like conditions and getting by on rations. During the famine in the 90s, people had to survive by boiling roots until they were semi-digestible. They used to use night soil (human waste) as fertilizer by scraping it off of toilet seats. This is well documented.
Would you ever go back to the DPRK?
If it ever opens up real tourism, it would be really interesting. After I did an interview with the CBC, there has been some backlash about tourism. There’s a belief that the money will go towards nuclear weapons and that you are contributing to the oppressive nature of these regimes.
So do you see this type of traveling as problematic?
North Koreans are fed propaganda day in, day out about how Westerners are the devil and their South Korean puppets will slit their throats at any chance. But I think the regime is stepping on their own foot by facilitating tourism. The more tourists go there, the more locals can see foreigners and see how they are dressed and that they’re 6’5”. This might shift their beliefs about foreign countries and encourage eventual defections if they do become curious about the world outside of North Korea.
Thanks, Andrew. That was really insightful.