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(LEAD) (Yonhap Feature) S. Koreans hope food will bring divided Koreas closer together

All Headlines 10:28 May 30, 2016

(ATTN: RECASTS lead to clarify)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, May 30 (Yonhap) -- Song Chun-sil, a 62-year-old North Korean defector, still vividly remembers the drawn-out economic hardship the communist country and its people went through in the 1990s, widely known as the "Arduous March."

At the height of the severe famine and economic crisis from 1994 to 1998, what supported ordinary North Koreans like Song was "special food" that was created out of desperate necessity.

What North Koreans created at that time for their survival were two dishes: "injogogi bap," cooked rice wrapped in a soy-based meat, and "dubu bap," fried tofu stuffed with steamed rice.

Nine years after she defected to South Korea, Song cooked and sold the foods last week to serve South Koreans and foreigners at an exhibition on unification held at a public plaza in central Seoul.

"There are few South Koreans who know that North Koreans endured the difficult period with these foods," she said. "I've joined the event to help more people better understand the North's food culture."

Song was among many participants in the exhibition highlighting the need for inter-Korean unification which ran from Friday to Sunday at Gwanghwamun Plaza. The event, hosted by Seoul's unification ministry, was held with the aim to raise awareness about unification amid frayed Seoul-Pyongyang ties.

Since South and North Korea were divided in 1945, people-to-people contacts and exchanges have become rare, making it hard for Koreans on the divided peninsula to understand each other. The two Koreas are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Amid the long-stretched division, hopes for inter-Korean unification appear to become elusive as inter-Korean tensions have further heightened, sparked by the North's fourth nuclear test and long-range rocket launch early this year.

A recent survey of Kookmin University showed that 46 percent of its 731 newly enrolled students said they support inter-Korean unification, but only 17 percent of the respondents said that unification may be feasible.

"The food section at the expo was set up to let people enjoy the culinary culture of the two Koreas and dream of a united Korea," said an official at the ministry which handles inter-Korean affairs.

The smell of cooking oil filled the "Quickly-made Foods" booth where Song and other defectors cooked the street foods which are still known to be popular in the North.

The North's economic difficulties during the Arduous March period stemmed from flooding and international isolation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. An estimated 3 million North Koreans are believed to have died from hunger.

"Injogogi bap," which literally means rice with artificial meat, is made by wrapping steamed rice in a light skin made from leftover soybean paste and served with a spicy sauce. They said it has a similar texture to meat, becoming a source of protein for North Koreans.

"Some customers jokingly asked me whether the food is made of human flesh, as the Korean word of 'injo' means human-made," Song said.

Lee Ha-yeon, a South Korean artisan on kimchi-making, said that she believes food can serve as a good catalyst in bringing the two Koreas' people closer together when the divided peninsula becomes one.

"Whether Koreans are happy or sad, kimchi has been on our dining table," Lee said. "Inter-Korean division has cut off exchanges of both sides' culinary culture. I think that unification would begin from doing something simple -- eating each other's foods."

At the expo, She showed how to make "bossam kimchi," or wrapped kimchi, which originated from the North Korean border city of Kaesong, the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).

Kaesong-style bossam kimchi is made by mixing various ingredients including seafood, jujubes, nuts, fruits, sliced radishes and other vegetables with chili peppers and salted shrimp and then wrapping them in salted napa cabbage leaves.

"This delicacy is being forgotten in South Korea. I hope that I can play a role in helping more South Koreans enjoy North Korea's kimchi-making culture," Lee said.

The Korea Humanities Institute of Food set up a pavilion at the exhibition where the two Koreas' signature food and kimchi were on display.

A simple meal for ordinary North Koreans consists of steamed maize mixed with rice, soup and three side dishes, including kimchi and seasoned soybean sprouts.

Rice is a key staple food for both South and North Koreans, but North Koreans also rely on maize due to chronic food shortages.

As a street food specialty, there is a "sokdojeon" rice cake in North Korea, a food quickly made by mixing water and maize flour.

"Sokdojeon," or speed battle, is the communist country's way of pushing its people into achieving something in a "speedy" manner.

"South Koreans are familiar with Western food as it is easy to eat it here, but not North Korean food," said Kim Kyung-mee, an expert on traditional Korean food. "Making the Koreas' foods leads me to think that we are truly one people."

Kim Young-hui, a North Korean defector, said that she felt nostalgic when she got the taste of a "sokdojeon" rice cake in Seoul, as it reminded her of life in North Korea.

"Some say that it is nonsense to talk about unification at a time when inter-Korean relations remain severely strained," said Kim who now heads the North Korean Economy Team at South Korea's Korea Development Bank.

"But I think that we need to continue to think about the meaning of unification and spare no effort to prepare for it."


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