Exporting North Korean Food Culture and Cuisines: NKR Interview with Tai Wei Lim




Tai Wei Lim is an associate professor at Soka University, who has been researching Northeast Asian Affairs as an area studies specialist. His essay, Exporting North Korean Food Culture and Cuisines, has been published in the Fall 2020 issue of the North Korean Review. This article addresses the question of North Korean gastrodiplomacy by studying North Korean restaurants and nightclubs that can be found mostly in China, but also throughout North East Asia. Through the description of those places and the dishes that can be found there, the researcher provides us with his interpretation of the reasons behind the North Korean's government decision to expand such activities. He explains that if it is indeed a way to earn foreign currency despite the UN-imposed sanctions, North Korean gastrodiplomacy could be a way for the country to expand its soft power after a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program and the end of international sanctions, as well as a tool to be used in diplomacy.


What drove you to conduct research on the question of North Korean gastrodiplomacy and exportation of food culture and cuisine overseas, and why do you think there has been very little research on this topic until now?


I am an East Asian specialist, including having a sub-field concentration on Northeast Asia. I have conducted research on culinary cultures and gastrodiplomacy in the East Asian context. This is a continuation of my interest. I have been fascinated with the soft cultural power element of food cultures on international relations for quite some time. Comparative elements in writing about different East Asian case studies helps me understand the commonalities as well as the subtle differences between East Asian states in executing gastrodiplomacy.


You pointed out the fact that North Korean gastrodiplomacy was popular in China and some other North East Asian countries due to cultural closeness. Do you believe that North Korean food culture and cuisine will eventually be able to be exported outside of those regional borders if CVID were to effectively take place within the country, or do you think that it will have to face some reluctance due to cultural differences? [...]


CVID is probably the basic condition that will facilitate the exportation of North Korean food culture outside its borders. Short of which, one can only find them in countries that have close exchanges, alliances or friendship with the North Korean regime as well as low-key informal marketplaces in East Asia. Cultural difference itself is unlikely to pose a challenge for propagating the food culture, given that South Korean offerings are already popular regionally and, in recent times, globally as well. It blazes the way for similar North Korean fares to hit the international consumer markets.


[…] Do you believe that this could be an obstacle that North Korea could be facing when trying to expand its soft power?


The main obstacle is international community acceptance. It needs to get over the issue of CVID in non-nuclear proliferation first.


You suggested in your essay that food could be a great asset to be used in diplomacy, using the example of naengmyeon served to South Korean President Moon Jae In during the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit. This tool is actually widely used in diplomacy (former French Secretary of State Laurent Fabius even stated that food diplomacy was one of the reason for the COP21's success in 2015), but very little studies have been conducted on it. [...]


I stated that food is used as an asset in cultural soft power projection in general, not specific to North Korea. Food, the way they are cooked, serving sizes, utensil use and dining setting are all important political and diplomatic symbols in East Asia's (especially in Northeast Asia) high context culture. Symbols are important in such culture, including their significance in diplomatic protocols. Culinary cultures can be utilized to demonstrate a mark of respect for the heads of state of other countries as well as parties joining a meeting or negotiation.


[…] How could we advocate for more thorough scholarships on this topic, and to what extent do you believe this could be beneficial to Inter-Korean relations?


This is only one aspect of potential inter-Korean relations but it is mainly symbolic. The main substance of normalization of the political-economic relationship or rapprochement is still the main issue of non-nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula (particularly for the US and its allies). From the North Korean, Chinese and Russian perspective, it would be the lifting of UN sanctions. Researchers can certainly advocate for more scholarship in this area by holding seminars on the topic. Or even publish full length monograph with photos of the actual cuisines themselves.


On the same topic, do you think that food should be considered as a primary tool when building a diplomatic strategy, or do you see it as a dependent variable that can participate in enhancing already good diplomatic relationships, but that is of little help when those ties deteriorate?


It cannot be a primary tool. In the six party talks, the primary concerns of various parties are:


– USA: CVID

– South Korea: reunification

– Japan: rachi mondai, or the issue of kidnapped Japanese citizens

– Russia and China: lifting of UN sanctions on North Korea. China is especially eager to invest in North Korea, access its rich natural resources, tap into its affordable labour and develop it into a thriving consumer market.


Food diplomacy is of little use if the above issues are not tackled simultaneously alongside it.


We saw that Taedonggang was exported to South Korea in relation with the Sunshine Policy, between 2005 and 2007, but did not survive the cooling of the inter-Korean relations under the presidency of Lee Myung Bak.


Indeed, proves the point above.


We can clearly witness in your article that North Korean gastrodiplomacy differs from the ones implemented by countries that we consider as middle power (i.e South Korea). Instead of expanding its soft power or its influence, North Korea's main goal appears to be earning foreign currency, which is in contradiction with the Juche principle of self-reliance. Do you believe that the end of international sanctions on DPRK might engender the decline of such businesses, with the recovery of other fields, like seafood export?


Juche is an ideological goal, but it does not prevent North Korea from pragmatically regionalizing or internationalizing if it is given the opportunity and opening to do so. The priority of earning hard currency at the moment is due to the UN sanctions that is crippling their economy. Ending international sanctions may open up three avenues for North Korea:


1. Regionalize and globalize their food culture (soft cultural power)

2. Generate revenue for their modernization and re-industrialization (perhaps following the Chinese or Vietnamese model)

3. Breed an entrepreneurial class as a forerunner of early market forces-oriented experiments. (again, the Chinese or Vietnamese model becomes relevant)


Seafood export in terms of food commodity is a separate issue. The lifting of UN sanctions in exchange for CVID will probably see the North Koreans pragmatically ramp up its exports to neighbouring countries (especially China whose middle- and high-income classes have strong demand for seafood products) and then the world to gain revenues for industrialization, generate jobs for its fishermen and other stakeholders and rely less on criminal/rogue/black market activities. However, CVID stands in the way.


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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