By Greg Larson
I skipped the in-flight meal on Air Koryo—the only North Korean airline, which consists mostly of a small fleet of planes bought at discount from Russia in the late 1980s, decorated with yellow wallpaper and silk doilies on the headrests. When the flight attendant produced from her cart a gray, mushy soup in a Styrofoam bowl, I smiled and said No, kamsahamnida. I figured I’d eat when we landed.
Pyongyang International Airport is basically a one-room building. (“International” is a somewhat misleading term, since the number of destinations has dwindled to China, Russia, and a few Southeast Asian countries; most European cities have forbidden Air Koryo from landing at their airports, due to concerns about aircraft maintenance.) Upon arrival, visitors wait in a poorly lit hall beneath large portraits of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung, the prime architect and “eternal president” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Under the watchful gazes of “Dear Leader” and “Great Leader,” uniformed soldiers inspect each passenger’s every possession, disarming them of “objectionable items” such as cell phones, iPads, radios, telephoto lenses, GPS transmitters, and any other modern communication device you might’ve been foolish enough to bring into the “hermit kingdom.”
As a soldier unpacked and gingerly repacked a pair of my jeans, the silence thick between us, I tried to think of something lighthearted and totally anodyne to say. “Levi’s,” I observed. And the soldier—who was wearing an enormous felt military cap, the same olive color his grandpa probably wore in the 1950s while fighting my grandpa—looked up and grinned. Almost instantly, the smile faded. He stamped my visa and I moved on without pressing my luck. Under national decree, citizens of the DPRK are forbidden to speak with foreigners—and unauthorized conversations can result in imprisonment.
My tour group was waiting for me outside the airport. I was two days late to North Korea, owing to a lost-passport fiasco. We hit the road as soon as I cleared customs, headed for the town of Wonsan, on North Korea’s eastern coast. Everybody had already eaten dinner, but they saved me a meal. As the bus departed Pyongyang, Mr. Lee—our government-issued tour guide and minder—sat down beside me and produced two plastic boxes, their contents obscured by old condensation.
“We’ll eat together,” said Mr. Lee. I popped open the box to find a small piece of fish on a bed of rice and kale.
Just as I was about to dig in, I felt a tap on my shoulder. My friend Harry’s face was conspiratorially wedged between the window and my seat.
“The fish—not good,” he whispered quickly, raising his eyebrows. He glanced at Mr. Lee, who was already eating, then retreated to his own seat. I turned to face my dinner, rattled. Getting sick from eating spoiled fish in North Korea, where health care is on par with plane technology and drugs like Tylenol and penicillin are rarities, would likely be a nightmare. But I knew I should eat it; refusing your first meal in a foreign country seemed only slightly less offensive than burning its flag. In North Korea, citizens of the United States are collectively referred to as miguk nom, “American imperialist bastards.” I wanted desperately to avoid reinforcing all the negative stereotypes that a guy like Mr. Lee could possibly harbor after spending forty-some-odd years within a national vortex of anti-Americanism. Since the mid-1990s, North Korea has faced perennial food shortages and the average family is underfed; casually turning down such an ample meal would be exactly the type of behavior expected from an imperialist American bastard. As it was, the North Korean government had been reluctant to let our group of American grad students into the country. Tourists are closely supervised while in North Korea. Our hotel rooms were very likely bugged; the soft-spoken Mr. Lee, while a really nice guy, was a government employee responsible for constantly monitoring our activities.
I knew I ought to eat the fish. But in the end, digestive anxiety trumped global understanding. I turned to Mr. Lee.
“Looks delicious, but I ate on the plane.”
I closed the lid and held up the box sheepishly, as a peace offering.
Mr. Lee stared back blankly, a grain of rice stuck to his chin. I could feel the lie—and my hunger—resonate against the walls of my stomach. After a moment, he accepted my dinner. And with that, my first North Korean meal was finished.
I felt another tap on the shoulder.
“Good call,” Harry whispered. “Want a Kit Kat?”
Each year, a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit North Korea, the most isolated nation on earth. All tours are highly scripted and follow a similar pattern. Tourists are only allowed to visit a limited number of preapproved sites. Most days you are confined to the bus; government minders accompany tour groups everywhere and dictate everything, corralling you through tightly circumscribed itineraries. Our tour was coordinated by a travel agency in Beijing. Leading up to the trip, the agency sent our group, composed of fifteen students, informational PDFs that read like inverted Miranda rights. “Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal in any other country.” Prohibitions included straying from the group, practicing religion, and interaction with the local population. There are designated tourist hotels, where North Koreans are not permitted to stay—in Wonsan, the Songdowon Hotel is on a foggy, abandoned pier jutting out into the Sea of Japan. In Pyongyang, the Yanggakdo Hotel is marooned on an island in the middle of a river, with a checkpoint restricting North Korean citizens from entering. The hotel mostly serves Chinese tourists and businesspeople. When we were there, only a few of the forty-seven floors were in operation; if you pressed the other buttons on the elevator, the doors would open to pitch-black hallways, some with wires hanging from the ceiling, others with no carpet.
There is no Internet in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The government owns and controls The Pyongyang Times and all other newspapers, radio, and television. The vast majority of citizens do not have cell phones, though in recent years the government has begun offering limited cellular service through the Egyptian company Orascom. (Officials in Pyongyang were supposedly very impressed by the speed with which Orascom was able to shut down cell-phone access during Egypt’s revolution.) Time itself is owned by the government: North Korea invented its own calendar, which counts from Year Zero (Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912; Juche 100 was celebrated a few weeks before our arrival). For many years, there were restrictions on wearing wristwatches. The country’s twenty-four million people live in a closed society so cut off and airtight that defectors—it is estimated that hundreds of thousands have managed to sneak across the hyper-patrolled borders with China and South Korea—feel, upon reaching their destinations, as though they are arriving on another planet. In Seoul, new arrivals from North Korea spend months in special schools learning how to live in the twenty-first century.
Ever since the Soviet Union caved in, the West has quietly and expectantly awaited North Korea’s implosion. But the Kim Dynasty and the Workers’ Party—a cabal of elites in Pyongyang who’ve micromanaged North Korea for nearly seven decades—have hung on, buoyed by a disproportionately oversized military and a Big Brother ethos of state surveillance and constant propaganda. The streets of Pyongyang are studded with towering bronze statues of Kim the Elder and Kim the Younger (the estimated countrywide statue total is 34,000). Along rural highways, every other hillside is plastered with giant red signs proclaiming the glory and eternal victory of Juche, North Korea’s national ideology of self-reliance and state patronage—a mash-up of Marx, Lenin, and Mao dreamt up by Kim Il-sung and articulated in his dozen or so books on the subject. A few days in North Korea teach you the basics of Juche: it is a philosophy of extreme nationalism capitalizing on resentment over historical injustices, especially toward the original Japanese colonization and the destruction wrought by the Korean War, for which North Korea ascribes blame exclusively to the U.S.
After Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, his youthful son Kim Jong-un succeeded him, and the world wondered if the new leader might open North Korea up to a new era of liberalization. Throughout 2012, Kim began to legalize previously forbidden behavior. Suddenly, North Korean women were allowed to wear pants and platform heels; bans were lifted on Western foods like pizza and hamburgers; in midsummer, Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh—classic icons of the DPRK’s cultural enemy—appeared as characters during a nationally televised event attended by Kim. Google executive Eric Schmidt visited in 2012, prompting the ruling party to relax restrictions on cell phones. Dennis Rodman made a meaningless “basketball diplomacy” visit months later. The overall effect was a burnished image for Kim and North Korea. The Supreme Leader was seen at Mangyongdae Amusement Park outside Pyongyang, pointing at roller coasters, ordering the managers to upgrade the video arcades, and eating french fries with schoolchildren.
But by early 2013, the U.S. and its allies were saddling North Korea with some of the toughest economic sanctions in history, and Kim Jong-un was threatening to revoke the armistice that ended the Korean War. In January, North Korea startled the world with its third nuclear test launch. By March, it was conducting mock drone tests and threatening to attack U.S. military bases in Japan and the Pacific Islands if provoked. In other words, the sea change in Pyongyang’s politics never came, and Kim Jong-un has assumed his inherited mantle as pariah leader and nuclear rocket rattler.
Visiting the country might be the best way to confirm these doubts about the prospect for change. North Koreans are perhaps the most repressed people on earth. Dissent is forbidden, and an enormous clandestine web of intelligence agents and neighborhood informers watches over society, ensuring that threats to the system are swiftly expunged. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans have been sent to Soviet-style gulags (or “reeducation camps”) in the mountainous north. The world knows little about these labor camps, save for a few harrowing memoirs from those who escaped and lived to tell the tale—but by all accounts, political prisoners are forced to work until they die. Or, as one of our guides put it, “People who do bad things are sent to work very hard, until people forget them.”
Everything in North Korea is tangled in misinformation. The government churns out constant fictions that citizens, lacking any reference point, are obliged to accept as reality. Visitors are left feeling slightly dizzy, wondering where the illusion ends. Every experience we had in North Korea felt somehow theatrical—as if the country put everything on hold during our visit and staged a simulated version of reality. We visited an adult-education classroom full of computers, with students who were apparently working on Word documents but never once touched the keyboards. I walked behind three students as they lazily moved their mouses over the screens—one was generating a document of complex math equations, another worked with architectural diagrams, and the third with dense paragraphs that looked like a technical manual. All of the Word docs were in English. Each student was wearing earbud headphones that didn’t appear to be connected to anything.
What the guides told us always felt vaguely deceptive, even when deception was totally unnecessary. We visited Kim Il-sung University, the best academic institution in the country, supposedly attended by 18,000 of the brightest North Korean minds. The stunning campus is full of Roman columns and marble staircases. When we showed up, the place was deserted. All of the classrooms were empty. Why? “It’s farming season,” a guide told me. “So the students are at the farms with their families.” But a few minutes later, I cross-checked this explanation with a different guide. “It’s Monday,” he said, “so the students are doing construction work off campus.” Five minutes later, a third guide made an announcement to our entire group. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the students are currently swimming at their swimming pool.” He said that the university had an Olympic-sized pool, located far from where we were touring, and that all the students had gone there after classes, “because after 1 p.m., they are free.”
It was impossible to know if the guides were aware of how dubious we were. If they were, they surely didn’t show it. All three guides were perfectly composed all week. After leaving Kim Il-sung University, we got back on the bus and the guide made another announcement. “I’m sorry we could not see the swimming pool and the students,” he said. “But if we did everything this time, you would never come back to Korea!”
Breakfast in Wonsan consisted of small whitish omelets with specks of green onion. On the side were three slices of white bread and a tiny fish, fried whole, that looked like miniature tilapia. For post-breakfast dessert, the waitresses brought plates of browning apple slices. As a tourist in North Korea you don’t eat in restaurants, per se. You eat in large empty banquet halls, located in large empty hotels. North Korea is a country full of negative space, of wide boulevards with no cars—silent, still, and eerie. At mealtime, our bus would pull up to a deserted building and we’d be herded through dark hallways to vacant dining rooms. (Not a day passed that I didn’t hear the phrase “This place reminds me of The Shining.”) There were always exactly fifteen table settings waiting for us. Napkins were folded into shapes that bloomed out of water glasses. The waitresses wore brightly colored gowns and were heavily made-up; they smiled constantly but a bit nervously.
In Hamhung—a large industrial city a few hours north along the coast—we had salty glass noodles (japchae) for lunch. The panchan side dishes were kimchi and a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce, dotted with clumps of mayonnaise that seemed to have been dolloped out of a cake-icing gun. North Korean kimchi, often served mixed with pineapple wedges, was the one food in North Korea that I couldn’t get enough of. I’d eat it off other people’s plates; I think the few stomachaches I had in North Korea were all brought on by too much kimchi juice.
Dinner was a schnitzel-like breaded beef—some had seconds, but most people skipped it. It was accompanied by perfectly cut cubes of bread that looked like large beige sponges; they were a bit sticky but tasted exactly like Wonder Bread. On the side was more kimchi, and a flavorless sauce filled with bits of tough, dried fish. Again, most people skipped it. Throughout the week, some people in our group ate more than others—I tended toward that end of the spectrum; the guys in general seemed to be less picky. A few of the women in the group never took more than a nibble of anything, joking that our weeklong trip was their “North Korean Diet Cleanse.” But each of us, to a certain extent, survived off Harry’s trove of Western snacks, which he carried around in a duffel bag.
Everywhere we ate, we left quite a bit of food unconsumed in our wake. It’s certainly ungracious to snub the food in a foreign country—but in North Korea, avoiding a meal sometimes seemed like the only prudent thing to do. After several members of our group fell sick, our concerns about the freshness and provenance of the food increased. In keeping with the highly scripted nature of the week, meals were largely prepared well before our arrival; if we arrived behind schedule, the food would often be served cold. Our guides never explained anything about the food or how it was prepared. The dishes were mostly plain versions of Korean classics, like bibimbap or “Pyongyang cold noodles.” The guides didn’t even eat with us; as soon as we sat down for a meal, they would disappear to a back room. For an entire week, we didn’t see any actual North Koreans eating anything anywhere.
But a quick glance at any statistic about health and nutrition in the country will tell you that each of our individual meals would have easily dwarfed the average daily caloric intake of an ordinary North Korean. Protein of any kind is rare in the countryside, and fruit is a real delicacy; even our browning apple slices were a relative luxury. By local standards, the amount of food we were served was obscene. Which only makes our rejection of it all the more ugly.
Having lots of food in places that lack food is always awkward. I’ve eaten lobster in Nairobi, across town from the Kibera slum. I’ve had a filet mignon sandwich after touring the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I’ve lived, worked, and eaten well in South Sudan, one of the poorest countries on earth. I was based in the remote and rural village of Marial Bai, overseeing the construction of a high school and educational center; as a foreigner and a guest in the community, I was served three square meals a day while most families struggled for one.
In the moment it feels strange, like playing the fiddle while Rome is burning. The feeling is vaguely horrible and acutely hypocritical. But you eat anyway—because the food is there, and you’re hungry. You share your food as much as possible, of course, and make other small gestures (kindness, humility, friendship, humor) to allay the moral dilemma. But you eat. And if the food is good, you savor. There’s some cognitive dissonance at play: you understand that people all around you may be starving, but you enjoy your meal.
In North Korea we committed something of a double hypocrisy: we knew people around us were starving, and that we were being served feasts, but we didn’t enjoy them.
North Korea is a famine state. Outside of the military and elite circles in Pyongyang, the country suffers from chronic food shortages and rampant malnutrition. Longstanding malnourishment has led to generations with stunted growth—the average North Korean is three to five inches shorter than the average South Korean. In rural areas, adults and kids alike look diminished, visibly smaller than the residents of Pyongyang. North Koreans are among the few populations on earth for whom life expectancy has been shrinking—a small club that includes Iraqis and the male population in Russia, which for years has been dying younger due to alcoholism.
The inefficiencies of a socialism based on centrally planned and imposed collectivist agriculture, combined with the fact that only one-fifth of land is arable in North Korea, creates perpetual food insecurity. The feeble economy has never successfully adopted large-scale farming or modern agriculture technologies; irrigation systems depend on electricity (which the DPRK can’t produce enough of), and fertilizers must be made in factories (which depend on electricity). We drove from coast to coast, passing vast farmlands, but never saw a tractor. Farmers use crude hoes and ox-drawn plows to till the soil; women crouch in rice paddies, seeding and weeding by hand. Annual estimates by the World Food Programme indicate that even at maximum levels, domestic food production in North Korea still falls short of the population’s basic needs, sometimes by as much as one or two million tons of grain in a bad year.
How, then, does North Korea feed its own people?
The answer: China. Based on current estimates, China supplies North Korea with about 45 percent of its food.
The two countries have been wary bedfellows since the DPRK’s inception, when more than a million Chinese soldiers fought on behalf of Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary forces in the Korean War. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea has relied on China as its primary source of both economic and political support. Beijing’s alliance with Pyongyang figures into its larger geostrategic concerns, as a way to power-check South Korea and U.S. interests in Asia. But in an international community that has uniformly ostracized the DPRK with sanctions and ice-cold diplomacy, China is pretty much North Korea’s last friend on earth.
According to Beijing’s export records (since Pyongyang doesn’t release any), North Korea imports pretty much the whole pantry: “meat; cereals; starch; fats; oils; grains; beverages; vegetables; salt; fish; shellfish; fruits; nuts; sugar; spices; coffee; tea; cocoa; dairy; eggs; honey; live animals; animal feed; food waste; miscellaneous foods; preserved foods; other foods.” In addition to nearly half its food, the DPRK imports 80 percent of its consumer goods from China, and 90 percent of its oil. China is North Korea’s largest import partner by a wide margin, and the trade imbalance is extreme; other than a little coal, China imports practically nothing from North Korea. In terms of imports, North Korea is China’s seventieth-largest trade partner—just below Yemen and Gabon.
In 2011, North Korea increased its imports of Chinese “luxury food items”—including about $500,000 worth of high-grade beef, apparently for lavish meals that Kim Jong-il used to maintain support among the power elite. My hunch, though, is that some of that luxury food is diverted to the tourist sector. On one of our last nights in the DPRK, we had a traditional Korean dinner of a dozen panchan served in individual bowls. Under brass lids we found pork sausage, french fries, honey cake, fried morsels of beef, and four or five types of fried vegetables. As the waitress served a plate of rice, molded into a little white hillock, I had to wonder—was this North Korean food or Chinese?
From 1994 to 1998, somewhere between 600,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans died from starvation. (The most credible source sets the figure at 1.2 million, or about 5 percent of the population.) The problems started with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s economic reforms, which together had the effect of kicking out the crutches from North Korea’s already anemic financial system. The economic shocks were compounded by massive floods, which swiftly obliterated North Korean agriculture.
The North Korean government offered various explanations for the food shortages. At one point they blamed the U.S., claiming that President Clinton had issued sanctions and ordered a blockade against the DPRK, which was preventing food from reaching the people. But as the reality of the famine became undeniable, they changed their approach. The news agencies reported that deliverance was just around the corner, that food shipments were on their way. The government propaganda machine began referring to the famine as the Arduous March, a largely apocryphal reference to a military victory by Kim Il-sung from the 1930s. Hunger became one’s patriotic duty.
The government announced a new campaign, called “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.” As the country ran out of food, the Public Distribution System was shut down, and black markets formed; starving families sold off everything they owned for sacks of grain. But then the black markets ran out of food too. People stopped going to work and spent their days scavenging for food in the forest, eating boiled grass and bark to stay alive. The country’s entire frog population was wiped out by overhunting; today it’s rare to see wild birds or animals in the countryside. Prostitution—which had never been widespread in North Korea—became commonplace, as mothers with no possessions started selling sex for food. In Barbara Demick’s collection of accounts from North Korean defectors, Nothing to Envy, survivors recall grisly details—of papery skin flaking off malnourished faces, of mothers unable to produce enough breast milk for their babies, of rumored cannibalism. Grandparents were known to starve themselves to death, relieving families of another burdensome mouth to feed.
The other famously horrific famine in recent history was just across the border in China. Death-toll estimates from the Great Chinese Famine of 1958–1961 range from fifteen to forty-three million. The cause, as in North Korea, was a combination of poor weather patterns and disastrous economic policies—in China’s case, the utter failure of Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.”
But China recovered and eventually transformed itself into an economic superpower. North Korea followed the inverse trajectory. In the 1970s, China began its long and successful embrace of free markets. Under Deng Xiaoping, agriculture was de-collectivized and opened to private trade, competition was introduced, and slowly but surely, farmers started growing enough food for their families plus a surplus to sell in relatively free markets.
In the early 1960s, the North Korean economy was also expanding rapidly; postwar reconstruction efforts were propped up with significant aid from other Communist countries. But Pyongyang held fast to its Communist principles and its stubborn policy of international isolation, and in so doing encountered deep, permanent stagnation. Since the “military first” policy was introduced in the mid-1990s following the death of Kim Il-sung, the majority of North Korea’s GDP—buttressed by government dabbling in the drug trade, illegal arms trade, and counterfeit money-laundering—is spent on its military. One-fifth of the North Korean population serves in the army, and the regime’s food problem forces it to confront a bitter calculus of guns versus butter. Do you feed your people, or do you develop a nuclear-weapons facility? Pyongyang always plays the grand bluff, using its military to force the world to take it seriously.
In 1995, after repeatedly denying the ongoing famine and preventing humanitarian organizations from entering the country, Kim Jong-il made an official request for assistance. The international community responded accordingly; between 1998 and 2004, the World Food Programme was feeding more than a quarter of the North Korean population. Ever since, North Korea has become somewhat synonymous with food aid. When Kim Jong-il wasn’t garnering headlines with threats of nuclear menace, he was appealing to the international community for assistance, trying to prevent mass starvation. While the North Korean government officially denies any problem, defectors and underground reports coming out of the country suggest persistent, cyclical food scarcity. International experts consider it entirely plausible that North Korea suffers from regular, brief but deadly “mini famines.”
During the 1990s famine, the U.S. was actually the largest humanitarian-aid donor to North Korea. Today, food and the threat of withholding it are the literal carrot and stick that Western powers use in dealing with Pyongyang: the U.S. extends/rescinds hundreds of tons of food aid to North Korea in clockwork-like response to the DPRK’s concessions/threats. From a 2010 policy briefing distributed to members of the U.S. House of Representatives: “The potential starvation of a sizable part of North Korea’s population provides some, but limited, leverage for the United States.” In early 2013, after the nuclear test, reports surfaced that Congress was considering a bill imposing a five-year outright ban on food aid to North Korea, just to send a message.
Regardless, any potential U.S. food aid to North Korea would be minor compared to that looming figure: 45 percent of North Korea’s food is Chinese. Crucially for Pyongyang, China categorizes this assistance as “general exports” rather than food aid. As a result, the shipments are not subjected to international policies regulating humanitarian aid—for instance, the laws that require governments to distribute food aid directly to the people in need. By classifying all the Chinese food as imports rather than aid, North Korea can legally keep agencies like the UN from inspecting the shipments or monitoring their distribution. This allows the leaders in Pyongyang to distribute the food as they see fit—to divert the food from China directly to the military, or to keep it for themselves.
After a couple days on the east coast, touring factories and schools and statues of the Kims, we headed back to Pyongyang. The drive was supposed to be a long one, so I snagged a window seat. But for three hours, all we passed were rice paddies. Every once in a while, through a crack in distant hills, I got a peek at a village. But otherwise, the road was an endless green loop, broken up every few miles by farmers crouching in the shin-high water in clusters of ten or twenty.
I turned to Mary, our student leader on the trip. Mary was the only fluent Korean speaker in our group, and was able to understand the guides. Throughout the trip, Mary could be relied on to provide much-needed insights as to what the hell was going on at any given moment.
“Sort of remarkable,” I said to Mary. “All the farming.”
She looked at me for a few seconds.
“Drinking the Kool-Aid, are we?” she asked.
I gestured to the green fields outside our bus, extending to the horizons on both sides. “You have to admit, this is a lot of rice farming.”
Mary was about to speak, but then glanced at Mr. Lee and said she’d talk to me later. I understood; anything even slightly anti–North Korean couldn’t be uttered within earshot of our guides. It had become obvious that their main professional duty on the trip was to extract as much information about us as possible. Each of us was at some point subjected to a brief “hangout session” with one of them, during which they’d casually ask personal questions—about our family backgrounds, our finances, and whether we would ever consider a career with the United States government.
At the next bathroom break, Mary pulled me aside to talk about the rice paddies. She said she thought they were mostly all for show. She thought our drive along the farm-lined highways was designed precisely for tourism—proof that North Korea wasn’t starving.
All the farmland in North Korea is government owned—each grain of rice is state property. Any crops produced along the highways would be transported to Pyongyang and put into the nationalized Public Distribution System (the same system that has failed to provide food for the majority of the country since the mid-1990s). The military, of course, gets the first cut. Rations are calibrated by rank and status based on North Korea’s social-class system, which categorizes family lineage by loyalty to the state along three main levels: the core class, the wavering class, and the hostile class. Peasant farmers are near the bottom of that pyramid, and their rations are almost never enough. Most people have private (and technically illegal) gardens to supplement their family food supplies.
I looked out at a watery field. Across the paddy was a group of shirtless farmers, the ribs on their crouching torsos visible from a football field away.
“Sure, they’re growing rice,” Mary said. “But do the people look fed? So, where does it go? Who is eating all the rice?”
We, for starters, were eating some of it. Over the course of the week, there were actually some great meals. We had all varieties of Korean barbecue—platters of thinly sliced meat grilled over charcoal, or over gas grills, or on our own personal hot stones. With every meal we drank from bottomless glasses of Taedonggang, North Korea’s state-owned beer. On the beach in Hamhung, we had fresh clams—tiny things, filled with little droplets of meat—dug minutes beforehand and grilled by our bus driver on a small charcoal stove until their shells popped open. We ate each clam with a swig of soju (“to kill the bacteria,” according to the driver).
But by the end of the week our group was a tired mess. All of us were sick—some physically, all psychically. Taking photos of funny Communist billboards grew boring. Some of the more patriotic Americans in our group had grown hostile toward the entire notion of North Korea—like my roommate, a former Army Ranger who had lost his leg in Iraq, and had hid his military service from the DPRK government. (When a guide pointed to his prosthetic and asked him what happened, he told a long and impressively detailed story about how his leg was chewed off by a bear in Alaska.) We all couldn’t wait to get home. Visiting North Korea is a lot like undergoing sensory-deprivation treatment; you emerge a changed person, but with zero hold on reality.
As our Air Koryo flight took off, Beijing bound, none of us looked out the windows for one last view of the country. Our minds were migrating back; across the aisle from me, a guy was already playing Angry Birds.
I pulled out a Kit Kat from my carry-on and started daydreaming about dinner in Beijing. Harry had spent the entire week raving about a Middle Eastern restaurant he’d found, located somewhere near Tiananmen Square. “Best hummus in Asia,” Harry had said. “Cheap food, good belly dancers.”
Middle Eastern food in China—I luxuriated in the thought. It was a nice feeling: to crave something. North Korea had dulled our appetites and sapped our spirits, and now Beijing would redeliver our stomachs to the world of food freedom. Americans have come to expect this as an inalienable right: to eat what you want and as much as you want, when and where you want it. The freedom to diet, the freedom to get fat.
There are no food magazines in North Korea. There are no cookbooks, no celebrity chefs, no slow food movements. In a famine state, the only luxury is a full stomach. DPRK propaganda asserts that every sack of grain distributed through the state-run ration system is a precious gift from the Workers’ Party. It’s unclear to what extent North Koreans understand that in reality, the party is bestowing precious little upon them, or that many of those gifts actually originate from their big red neighbor. One senses that the people must know the score; that they have at least an inkling about the world beyond, and are craving more. But they say nothing, and never ask for more. The consequence and potential punishment for even the slightest complaint are so grave that it’s impossible for a North Korean to do anything but comply. They eat their rations, and they thank their Supreme Leader for the meal.
Beyond the customs area at Beijing Capital International Airport, the baggage claim opens up to a long hallway of souvenir shops, cafés, and fast-food restaurants. Our group moved as a flock through a procession of them: McDonald’s; KFC; Starbucks; Häagen-Dazs; and a dozen Chinese noodle stalls. We walked in silence as dreary thoughts from North Korea faded into memory and blown-up photos of Big Macs supplanted Communist propaganda. The food tragedies of North Korea drifted backward in my mind. I inhaled the heavy smell of grease, and looked forward to my next meal.
Seven articles from Lucky Peach were nominated for James Beard awards this year. We are posting all of them this week for your reading pleasure.
The above article originally appeared in the Travel Issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly journal of food and writing. If you loved this — or even just strongly liked it — why not subscribe to the magazine? At least visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Greg Larson is the former director of the VAD Foundation, a small nonprofit founded by Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers that builds schools in South Sudan. He is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.