North Korean defectors are opening restaurants in Seoul, South Korea to provide comfort to other defectors and educate diners on North Korean culture.
Since 1945, nearly 34,000 North Koreans have chosen to leave their country and embark on a perilous journey to South Korea. Many defectors cite restriction of civil and political liberties and high levels of food insecurity as the reason for this move.
During the 1990s, North Korea endured a famine causing nearly 3 million people to die. And recent reports from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), found that two out of five children in North Korea are malnourished.
North Korean refugees can still encounter difficulties when adjusting to their new lives in South Korea. According to a study conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of North Korea, 45.5 percent of North Korean defectors stated that they experienced discrimination from employers, colleagues, and people on the street.
Some refugees are hoping to combat these stereotypes through food. Throughout South Korea, North Korean defectors are establishing restaurants that offer North Korean cuisine, which uses fewer sauces and seasonings than South Korean cuisine.
Food Tank is highlighting seven restaurants in Seoul that are working to provide comfort for North Korean refugees and dismantle negative stereotypes about North Korean culture.
Banyrongsan is a restaurant that specializes in dishes from the Hamheung region in North Korea. Jeong Sang-hyeok, the owner of Banyrongsan, named the restaurant after a mountain near Hamheung, the hometown of his mother. One popular dish is garit gukbap, a soup with rice, radish, tofu, shredded beef, green onions, and sliced egg.
Owner and Chef Yu Jong-cheol is serving a combination of high-end dishes and classic staples of North Korean cuisine at Dongmu Bapsang. Yu trained at the critically acclaimed Okryu-gwan, a restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea, for four months. He then cooked for general level officers at a military restaurant, before escaping North Korea in 1998. Yu relies on his experience in North Korea to create dishes for the menu at Dongmu Bapsang.
Owner Yun Hu-ja named the restaurant after her parents’ hometown in North Korea and is working to raise awareness about North Korean cuisine. While many people recognize mandu (Korean dumplings), Yun aims to share her recipes of buckwheat cold noodles and homemade kimchi and soy sauce.
Founded by activist, defector, scholar, and restaurateur, Lee Ae-ran, Neungra Bapsang is working to raise awareness about North Korean culture through food. Lee only hires women defectors in an effort to help them begin their new lives. In addition to establishing Neungra Bapsang, Lee also founded the North Korean Traditional Food Society, which provides jobs for female defectors and helps them adjust to life in South Korea. In 2010, Lee received the International Women of Courage Award for her work with North Korean defectors.
Pyeongraeok was started by a family that came to South Korea from the Pyongyang region at the start of the Korean War in 1950. The restaurant specializes in Pyongyang cuisine and is known for its chogyetang, a cold noodle dish served with stewed chicken, cabbage, and cucumber.
Located in Hongdae, a nightlife center in South Korea, Pyongyang Suljib is a bar that serves North Korean food and drinks in an effort to educate people on North Korean culture. Decorated with artwork resembling North Korean propaganda posters, the bar provides traditional North Korean clothes that people can try on to learn more about North Korean culture. The owner, not named for safety reasons, hopes Pyongyang Suljib can become a place for young adults to engage with North Korean culture in a fun way.
7. Woo Lae Oak
The Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Woo Lae Oak, is the oldest restaurant in Seoul known for serving Pyeongyang naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles). The restaurant also specializes in bulgogi, quality beef grilled tableside, and is often packed during the summer.
Photo courtesy of Saveliy Bobov, Unsplash