Wed. May 29th, 2024

North Korean defectors Down Under break barriers with food

Jamie Roberts By Jamie Roberts May16,2024
Key Points
  • North Korean food was at the centre of a rare cultural exchange event in Sydney.
  • Eight North Korean defectors and their families met with around 60 South Korean migrants.
  • Kumyoung Choi, 42, a North Korean defector turned businesswoman, was the driving force behind the event.
Kumyoung Choi, 42, has cooked up a batch of her favourite childhood dish, cornmeal cakes, to feed around 100 people
“This cornmeal was made of cooked, dried and ground corn, so it was a very convenient food for us because we could make it just by adding cold water, without gas, electricity or coal,” she told SBS Korean.
For Kumyoung, a North Korean defector who now lives on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, this was a rare occasion to showcase the traditional cuisine of her homeland.
On a sunny Autumn day in Sydney, eight North Korean defectors and their families joined about 60 South Korean migrants for an event devoted to food and cultural exchange.

As they can be prepared in minutes, cornmeal cakes are known as sokdojeon tteok, which means ‘speed cakes’, in North Korea.

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Kumyoung Choi makes cornmeal cakes, known as sokdojeon tteok, which means ‘speed cakes’, in North Korea. Source: SBS / Laszlo Mizsak

The dish also brings up painful memories for Kumyoung.

Upon discovering that the cornmeal used at the event was smuggled out of North Korea and shipped to Australia via China and South Korea, she was overwhelmed with emotion.

“Once, a friend of mine told me her wish was to eat a piece of cornmeal cake, and she passed away the very next day. She starved to death,” she said.

A meeting of North and South

Kumyoung was the driving force behind the event held at the Korean Society of Sydney in Croydon Park in early April.

It was hosted by the Australian branch of the Peaceful Unification Advisory Council (PUAC), a policy advisory organisation for the South Korean government.

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A rare gathering of North Korean defectors and South Korean migrants was held in Sydney. Source: SBS / Leah Hyein Na

According to the latest Census, there are around 80 registered North Korean-born individuals residing in Australia.

Kumyoung claimed the event represented the largest gathering of North Koreans ever in Australia.

She said she hoped it could help bridge the ‘distance’ between the North and South Korean communities.

“Koreans living here are surprised when they see people who have defected from North Korea. Mostly it’s their first time seeing us.”

Sharing experiences through food

Other North Korean dishes rarely sighted in Australia, like tofu rice, blood sausages and charcoal-black frozenpotato rice cakes, were also prepared for the occasion.
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North Korean defectors based in Australia make potato rice cakes. Source: SBS / Edwina Guinan

While South Korean cuisine enjoys great popularity around the world, food from the north is less known.

“As a fellow expatriate, I feel a warm taste. It was my first time trying it (North Korean food), but it tasted familiar,” Sunghwan Choi, an attendee, said.
In return, South Korean migrants served janchi guksu (‘banquet’ noodles traditionally eaten at special events) along with fried chicken, stir-fried pork and fish cake soup.
Vegetables, grains and beans are the basis of many North Korean dishes, which are typically milder than their southern counterparts.

North Korean blood sausages, known as sundae, use glutinous rice and vegetables, which give them a light and delicate flavour compared to the South Korean version made with sweet potato noodles.

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Kumyoung Choi and Kyungok Cho make North Korean blood sausages, known as sundae, using glutinous rice and vegetables. Source: SBS / Edwina Guinan

Based in Sydney, Kyungok Cho learned these recipes while working in the commercial kitchen of a large restaurant in Pyongyang before escaping in 2004.

She said such dishes were only for feast days in North Korea, where food shortages were severe.

“These were precious dishes, so we couldn’t even make them at home. They were only for special occasions. We sometimes bought them in markets,” she said.

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North Korean dumplings, blood sausages and tofu rice (left), frozen potato rice cakes (top right) and cornmeal cakes (bottom right). Source: SBS / Leah Hyein Na

Perilous journey

Event organiser Kumyoung, who came to Australia nine years ago, said she saw many people around her perish due to hunger in the 1990s.
In 1997, when Kumyoung was 15, she and her family fled North Korea, crossing the frozen Duman River on foot into China.

Four years later, after failed attempts to reach South Korea and amid heightened police surveillance, they were on the move again.

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Kumyoung Choi (bottom right) photographed with her grandmother, parents and four siblings in North Korea. Source: Supplied / Kumyoung Choi

Upon entering Myanmar, Kumyoung’s parents and three siblings were arrested, while Kumyoung managed to evade capture by hiding.

For two months, battling constant hunger, she walked at night until she finally reached the Thailand border.
In Bangkok, her pleas to the South Korean Embassy saw her family released from the Myanmar detention centre and sent to South Korea.
Kumyoung said she was left drained by the ordeal.
“I was in Thailand and people there mistook me for a woman over 60 years old because I was very skinny and dark.”

“They even called me halmeoni (grandmother in Korean). It was disheartening to see my reflection in the mirror,” she said.

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Kumyoung fled North Korea in 1997 and arrived in South Korea in 2001 after enduring immense hardships. Source: Supplied / Kumgyoung Choi

Discovering discrimination

After arriving in Seoul in 2001, Kumyoung’s expectations of a new life were quickly dampened

.

“We discovered discrimination. The South Koreans received anti-communist education and we were taught that South Korea was bad,” she said.

“A professor in my university once asked me if I was a spy. I fled from North Korea because I was hungry, so I cried a lot when I heard that.”

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Professor Bronwen Dalton, a North Korean expert at the University of Technology Sydney, said “often North Koreans are treated with a degree of distrust from South Koreans”. Source: SBS

Professor Bronwen Dalton, a North Korean expert at the University of Technology Sydney, said “often North Koreans are treated with a degree of distrust from South Koreans”.

“Some might be concerned that they are spies. Others feel that they are a drain on government resources, and (there are) other types of othering (because) they don’t follow these social norms of South Koreans,” she said.
Made to feel like an outsider in Seoul, Kumyoung dreamed of new home country, a place with “no North and South”.
In 2015, Kumyoung immigrated to Australia with her South Korean husband, and their two young children, aged one and three at the time.
“When I arrived in Australia, both people from the South and the North were just regarded as migrants,” she said.

“When I told people I fled from North Korea, they accepted my story beautifully and respected me.”

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Now, Kumyoung runs eight restaurants on the Sunshine Coast. Source: SBS / Laszlo Mizsak

Mentoring other North Korean defectors

Today, Kumyoung runs eight restaurants on the Sunshine Coast.
She has also started a YouTube channel to share her journey, garnering over 60,000 followers.
“My dream wasn’t that big. It was just meeting a nice man, having beautiful children, and living a life without worrying about food or a place to sleep, so I got more than I wished for.
“I thought my dream could be someone else’s dream, so I started a ,” she said, explaining that several North Korean defectors had reached out to her for guidance on settling in Australia.
“We must all live well together. That’s because in North Korea, only one per cent of Kim Il-sung’s people in Pyongyang lived well while the rest of the population suffered.”

“I knew that I would be happy only if everyone around me and who knew me was happy,” she said.

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Kwangjin Lee, who came to Australia last year with Kumyoung’s help, said such events are important to bring people together. Source: SBS / Laszlo Mizsak

Kwangjin Lee, who came to Australia last year with Kumyoung’s help, said such events are important to bring people together.

“Personally, I think it was very meaningful as people like me from North Korea were able to be part of the Korean community.”

‘Reunification starts with the people’

During the event, children from North and South Korean families came together to sing a song of peace: “Just as flowers bloom in the North and flowers bloom in the South, they are flowers. They are flowers, no matter where they bloom.”

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Children from North and South Korean families sing a song of peace. Source: SBS / Leah Hyein Na

While such lyrics convey an optimistic outlook, Dalton said opportunities for building relationships between North and South Korea are rare and may become even rarer.

“North Korea recently made a radical change in policy and expunged its commitment to a ‘One Korea’ policy, and it also disbanded all the agencies that were centred around encouraging inter-Korean cooperation,” she said.
In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea was no longer seeking reconciliation and reunification with South Korea.

He called for South Korea to be classified as North Korea’s “primary foe” in a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, his country’s rubber-stamp parliament.

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Ryde City Councillor Daniel Han, a member of the South Korean community, said it was a rare chance to have honest conversations. Source: SBS / Laszlo Mizsak

Ryde City Councillor Daniel Han, a member of the South Korean community, participated in the event and said it was a rare chance to have honest conversations.

“It is probably the only opportunity for the North and South people to meet freely in Australia. And this is where the reunification can start, from the people, with understanding and without any prejudice from each other,” he said.

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Eight North Korean defectors and their families based in Australia gathered in Sydney. Source: SBS / Leah Hyein Na

Jamie Roberts

By Jamie Roberts

Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist with a focus on uncovering corruption and advocating for social justice. With over a decade of experience in the field, Jamie's work has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in various communities.

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2 thoughts on “North Korean defectors Down Under break barriers with food”
  1. As a food enthusiast, it’s truly inspiring to see how Kumyoung Choi and other North Korean defectors are preserving their traditional cuisine and sharing it with the world. Food has the power to bridge cultural gaps and spark meaningful conversations. I admire their determination and resilience in promoting their heritage through the universal language of food.

  2. As a food enthusiast, I admire the courage and resilience of Kumyoung Choi for sharing her cultural heritage through food despite the challenges she faced. It’s heartwarming to see how food can bring people together from different backgrounds for a meaningful cultural exchange.

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