HJ: We’re both Koreans.
Joi: I mean, kind of. HJ: But every time we come to Korea, we feel this strange sense of alienation. Joi: That’s probably because I grew up in California, which is over 9,000 kilometers away from here.
HJ: And I haven’t lived in this country since I was nine years old. Joi: So it’s pretty obvious, when we walk in the streets of Seoul…. HJ: We speak differently. Joi: Or not much at all. HJ: We dress differently.
Joi: We even carry ourselves differently. HJ: We might as well be tourists. Joi: But when we sit down over that Korean meal… HJ: We know that we are both undoubtedly Korean. It ties us to our motherland no matter how far we stay. But what about for one group of people who have grown so radically apart that they now might as well live in different universes, like North and South Korea? When we bond over the taste of Korea, we are really talking about the South. But what about the other Korea? And who are the people who
eat it? ♪ Fork the System Theme by Surya Giri ♪ It’s April 27, 2018. All eyes are on two men, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, as they stand before one of the most militarised borders in the world. It’s a historic moment. The first time a North Korean leader has stepped inside South Korea, across a border that did not even exist before 1945. After WWII, the world’s superpowers, the Soviet Union and the US, chose the Korean Peninsula as their new battleground. With a stroke of a pen, the Korean people suddenly found themselves torn in half — their identity, family, and nation divided by the newly drawn 38th parallel. What followed was three years of bloody war. Millions of Koreans died. Among the first casualties of the Cold War. The peninsula remains divided nearly 70 years later. So this simple act of shaking hands feels monumental. They even shared a meal. And what’s on the menu? Naengmyeon, or cold noodle soup, is something familiar to every Korean. The South has its own versions. We even have a K-pop song. But Pyongyang naengmyeon — straight from its birthplace, cooked by North Korean chefs, personally delivered by secret service agents? Now that was something else. This unassuming Northern dish continued to make an appearance during the Korea summits. President Moon Jae-in even tried it in the most famous restaurant in North Korea. And everyone wanted a taste of history. But what’s so special about this naengmyeon that some even called it the new symbol of peace? So we decided to ask a North Korean who’s been eating it her whole life. Joi: After you, my darling. HJ: Thank you. HJ: They say chivarly is dead but I see that it’s well and alive. Until three years ago, Moon Yeon Hee was living in Pyongyang, the capital, where her family owned a popular restaurant. They defected in 2016 after her father passed away. In Seoul, they decided to continue the family business. HJ: Huh, it’s like, you know, she’s doing laundry.
Joi: Yeah. Joi: What goes in the broth? Right off the bat, we noticed how different Moon’s naengmyeon is to the ones we’ve eaten before, which normally has a mix of beef and Kimchi soup. Her toppings are also more lavish — eggs cooked two ways, three types of pickles, pine nuts. This is not the humble Pyongyang naengmyeon we’re used to. Joi: This is so different. Joi: Where are your table manners? In South Korea, Pyongyang naengmyeon is often described as bland. But this was anything but. Joi: Why do you think that people in South Korea have such a different image of Pyongyang naengmyeon? Joi: So you are saying that over the last 60, 70 years, Pyongyang naengmyeon has actually evolved? The Pyongyang naengmyeon we’ve been eating all our lives was frozen in time — like our understanding of North Korea itself. But so little information makes it across the tightly-controlled border — except what the regime wants you to see. Joi: So over there is North Korea. Joi: And if you think about it, it doesn’t take that long to get here. Joi: I guess from Seoul, it took like, how long? HJ: One hour? HJ: Do you feel anything when you see that? Joi: Honestly, I feel bit like, um… indifferent. Joi: I can tell that I am supposed to feel something but I don’t, because it feels so curated. HJ:I mean, I guess it wasn’t at all a part of your education growing up. HJ: You know, like for me, when I went to school here, it was every year we would draw reunification posters, HJ: I guess, I feel like, you know, this sense of longing? HJ: But I don’t know if that’s just really how I feel or that was just kind of ingrained in me since I was little. Joi: Growing up, we didn’t talk about North Korea at all in my family. Joi: Because it wasn’t something that was really relevant to us. Joi: And also, we were already dealing with the idea of Korean abroad. Joi: And that was already like the most complex identity issue for us. HJ: Right. Behind closed doors, Pyongyang has been evolving. Smartphones, department stores, swanky metro station. Sometimes it is hard to tell if we’re looking at North or South Korea. But that’s life in the capital city, something most North Koreans don’t get to experience. For Kim Jung-soon, hunger was the norm in rural North Korea. She defected in 2011 in search of her lost daughter and a better life. She taught us how to make tofu rice — a north Korean street food. It’s just fried tofu stuffed with seasoned rice. Like many North Korean staples, it’s simple and filling. Kim lived through the great famine that devastated North Korea in the 90s. We will never know for sure how many people starved to death, but estimates run as high as 3.5 million people. People were desperate. Kim Jung-soon left her daughters to search for food. And when she came back, they were gone. She’s still looking for her youngest daughter more than 20 years later. Joi: Has she heard any news of her daughter? HJ: Is that so… Kim Jung-soon: Yes… Families ripped apart. The Arduous March. War. For older Koreans, these scars might still be fresh. But for the new generations of Koreans, this history feels like someone else’s story. Joi: I’ve never met a North Korean before, and actually, the idea of someone who is North Korean is already something that’s so distant from me. Yet reunification is something that we continue to talk about, and even hope for. HJ: I think reunification is something that I will always want in my dreams, because this is something that I was told repeatedly, that Koreans are one people. We’ve been separated. HJ: But I think with the way thing are right now with so many foreign powers that have their stake in this entire issue, I think it’s almost impossible and quite unrealistic to think that reunification is something that’s going to happen. But our image of the ‘other’ Koreans is like a fading photograph. It was time to bring it up to date. We decided to meet someone from the new generation of North Koreans. Kim Yeon-yong has had to fend for herself since she was 15-years-old. To survive, she sold food like the dumplings we’re making now in the local markets. But she doesn’t want your pity. She’s a hustler. Even after defecting in 2015, she hasn’t slowed down. She goes to university, has a part-time job and volunteers on the weekend. Joi: Can you describe what your village looked like? Joi: Of course, it’s not easy when you realise that like, the life that you lived had to be harder than it needed to be. Joi: This mandu is so big. Kim Yeon-yong: It’s yours. Joi: It’s clearly mine. Look, this is like all broken inside. Joi: Anything with kimchi inside, you can’t go wrong with. Joi: So inside there’s kimchi, tofu, perilla leaves. HJ: Pork, onions, HJ: and garlic. Like lots of garlic. HJ: She was mincing that garlic like crazy. And Koreans, divided people. But the rift between us might be smaller than the bridge that connects us. The cold noodle soup the two leaders shared was not only a reminder of our shared roots, but also of the changes we’ve each gone through during our time apart. Changes that we shouldn’t see as barriers but an invitation to explore and to hopefully understand. HJ: Thank you for watching our first episode in Korea. HJ: It was a very personal story for us. Joi: So we wanted to ask you guys a question. Joi: How have food and identity intersected in your life? Joi: We’d love to hear your stories so comment below or follow us on Facebook HJ: And Instagram. Joi: Especially if you want to join our conversations. HJ: This is one of three episodes of Fork the System’s first season. HJ: We can’t wait for you to see the other two. Joi: So stick around. HJ: And get out there and eat some Korean food! Joi: RAWHGJWAH!! HJ: Is that how you eat Korean food? HJ + Joi: RAWHWAHRHWHAHHH!