Saturday, 24 August 2013

Korea - Something to Envy?

I've just finished reading Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (2010).  It's a fascinating read and I feel that this book has given me a real insight into what has happened on the Korean peninsula, especially North Korea, in the past 60 years.  I'm also left wondering, as so many have been left wondering before me, how the North Korean regime has managed to hold on to power for so long?

I wanted to share three things I learned from Demick's book, that I think are important or resonate with places I've blogged about in the past.

1. The Famine

View from the Juche Tower by Marcelo Druck
I'd normally consider myself to be quite well up on world affairs but, somehow, I seem to have completely missed the fact that there was a major famine in North Korea, between 1994 and 1998.  True, it was a time in my life when I was bit disengaged from the bigger picture, mostly concentrating on my final exams at university and my first attempts at travelling and living abroad. 

Or perhaps I'm not the only one who missed this?  Perhaps it wasn't really known in the West at the time, due to the secrecy surround the hermitic People's Democratic Republic?  It's estimated that anything up to 3.5 million people died during the Famine (Demick puts the figure between 600,000 and 2 million) and I find it astounding that this could happen, in the closing decade of the 20th century, in a country surrounded by some of the most prosperous nations on Earth!

2. The North Korean Army

Portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il by Marcelo Druck
I also learned that North Korea, which has a similar population to Ghana and less than half the population of the UK, has the fourth largest army in the world!  There are 1.1 million people actively serving in the Korean People's Army, out of a total population of around 25 million people.  Unbelievably, North Korea has a larger army than Russia and is only surpassed in size by the new Superpowers; China, the United States and India. 

If you also count reserves and paramilitary forces, then North Korea has the biggest army in the world, almost 9.5 million people!  Perhaps this explains why the regime has stayed in power for so long?  Demick also explains North Korea's Songun or military-first policy, which prioritises the People's Army, in terms of resources and food supplies.  It has to be said that South Korea is also an incredibly militarised society, for its size.  With a population similar to England, South Korea's army is three times the size of the British army.

3. Mongolia's soft spot for religious dissenters?

Juche Tower by Marcelo Druck
Much of Demick's research is backed up by real-life stories of North Koreans who defected to South Korea and I found it interesting to read about the Mongolian route to South Korea.  The only way out of North Korea is across the northern border to China - those who can afford it organise fake passports that will get them on flights from Harbin and Beijing to Seoul.  For those with limited resources, fleeing to Mongolia is the best, albeit, more perilous option.

I noticed that the stories about defectors via Mongolia seemed to mostly involve North Koreans who were practising, or claiming to practise Christianity and it reminded me of my previous blogging about Mongolia, when I learned about the 'loss of religion' in Mongolia and how this has impacted on the national psyche.  Perhaps the Mongolians have something of a soft spot for the religious refugees fleeing North Korea?

Nothing to Envy

The title of Demick's book is from a popular slogan used by the establishment in North Korea.  She uses this slogan ironically - it should mean 'North Korea has nothing to envy in the rest of the world', but it could also mean 'The rest of the world has nothing to envy in North Korea' - also the fact that 'envy' is suggested at all, reveals that it's probably the greatest fear that the North Korean regime has - ie. that it's people will finally succumb to the temptations of the decadent capitalist world around them. 

I've just started reading another great book - The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (2013) by Victor Cha and he also makes a reference to this slogan.  I'm not sure if I'll have time to finish Cha's book, before my month (or so) with Korea runs out, which is a pity, as I'm already getting quite involved in his interpretation of recent events. 

Who knows what the future holds for Korea - every political analyst and commenter seems to have underestimated the power of the North Korean state and we've been led to believe that the People's Democratic Republic could fall any day now, except it never does!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of flickr member mardruck - aka Marcelo Druck.  Marcelo has taken some really beautiful photos in Korea and North East Asia - these photos are from the set Pyongyang - thanks Marcelo for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Korea - How I made Naengmyun - 냉면

In my search for a traditional Korean dish, I stumbled upon a really great cookbook The Food and Cooking of Japan and Korea (2010) by Emi Kazuko and Young Jin-Song.  Not only does it have lots of great recipes, well-described with plenty of pictures (which all good recipe books should have!) - but they also provide a narrative explanation and background to Japanese and Korean cooking and what you can expect to find in Japanese and Korean kitchens. 

Finding myself spoilt for choice, I decided to steer away from Korean dishes, like Bulgogi, that might be more familiar to the European palate - instead I chose a less familiar dish Naengmyun.  Perfect for hot summer weather -  it translates as 'cold noodles'

The Ingredients

The ingredients
350g of beef - 쇠고기 (saegogi) - the recipe said 90g, but I didn't think this would be enough
1 onion - 양파 (yangpa)
1/4 white radish/mooli - 무 (mu)
1/2 cucumber - 오이 (oi)
1 leek - 리크 (likeu)
1 Asian pear - 배나무 (baenamu) - unfortunately, I couldn't find an Asian pear, so I substituted with a European pear - 서양배 (seoyangbae)
Fresh ginger - 생강 (saeng-gang)
4 cloves of garlic - 마늘 (maneul)
Buckwheat noodles - 소바 (soba)
Shaoxing rice wine - 사오싱주 (saosingju)
Mustard - 머스터드 (meoseuteodeu)
1 egg - 달걀 (dalgyal)
salt - 소금 (sogeum)
sugar - 설탕 (seoltang)

How I made Naengmyun - 냉면

I started by boiling a large pot of water, then added the beef which I had cut into strips.  The recipe recommended boiling a whole flank of beef and cutting it into strips later, but I thought this method would be more effective and less messy!

Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the beef strips
It's important to scoop away the beefy froth that forms on top of the boiling water, before reducing the heat to let the beef boil for about an hour. 

Remove the beefy froth that forms on top of the boiling water
Whilst the beef was boiling I prepared other elements of the dish.  Something I've noticed about North East Asian cooking is that it mostly involves preparing lots of little bits and pieces of dishes, which are later combined by the diner to create a full meal.  Naengmyun was no exception. 

First I prepared the white radish - by cutting off 1/4 of the vegetable - peeling it and chopping it into small bite-size sticks.  It was my first time to prepare white radish and I really like the taste and crunchy texture of it.  I coated the radish sticks in sugar, salt and rice wine.  I then prepared the cucumber and pear in a similar way and put all three in the fridge to be served later.

White radish, called Mooli in Hindi

Chop the white radish into bite-size sticks

Prepare the cucumber by de-seeding

Also take the core out of the pear

Cucumber and pear sticks ready for chilling!

Next I prepared the noodles - boiling them in water for about two minutes, before draining them until the water ran clear.  I also put them in a bowl in the fridge for later. 

Boil the buckwheat noodles (soba) for about two minutes

After simmering the beef for 45 minutes, I prepared the vegetables that would go with it, to make the broth.  This involved washing and chopping the leek, cutting the onion, garlic and ginger root into small pieces.  Once the beef had simmered for about an hour, I added the vegetables, brought the whole lot to the boil and then simmered again for another twenty minutes.

Prepare the leek, onion, ginger and garlic

Add the vegetables to the pot and simmer for a further 20 minutes

My final touch was to prepare a saucer and ramekin with the condiments; salt, sugar, rice wine and ginger - to be added to the soup at the very end.  I also hard-boiled an egg and put this in the fridge to chill. 

The condiments: sugar, salt, mustard and Shaoxing rice wine

When the beef and vegetables had fully cooked, I strained the broth into a container - put the meat and vegetables in another container and put the whole lot in the fridge to chill.

Beef and vegetable broth

Chill the beef and vegetables in the fridge

Naengmyun is best served cold, on a hot summer's day.  It's a bit weird, from a European perspective, to eat cold soup, but I wanted to do it proper Korean-style! 


Close-up with Hite beer

After chilling all the ingredients, I set the table - then invited my partner to make his dinner by adding the cold broth, noodles, meat and vegetables, radish, cucumber and pear sticks, egg and condiments.  Oh - and not forgetting a cold Hite beer!

Buying Korean food in London

Although I couldn't find Asian pear, I managed to find all of the other ingredients for this dish by taking a trip to Burlington Road in New Malden, Kingston-upon-Thames - the heart of London's Korean community. 

As well as buying the ingredients for Naengmyun, I also bought some ready-made Kimchi (김치 ) and some Soju (소주), just to taste!

Kimchi and Soju

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to reuse, under the Creative Commons license:

Attribution (especially to this blog post)
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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Korea - the Google Instant test

I want to introduce a new feature to my blog this month.  It's something I find quite fascinating, as I've been researching different world cultures for this blog: I'm calling it the Google Instant test.

Since Google introduced Google Instant in 2010, you may have noticed that, when you start typing something in the Google search field, a drop down list of suggested topics appears and changes 'instantly' as you're typing.

The intention is to save users time and, I'm assuming, the suggestions are based on the most googled topics.  Try typing - Are Germans . . . or Do French people . . . or Is China . . . into Google's search engine and the resulting most-frequently-googled questions are often quite amusing, occasionally sad or even shocking!  Some of the questions people ask make me wonder about the future of the human race!  Others are incredibly revealing, honest or relevant - depending on what you think the motivation for asking might be.

Here's what I found when I started asking questions about Korea:

Is Korea going to bomb us?

With variations - eg. Is Korea going to bomb UK? and Is Korea going to bomb America?  Of course, my Google Instant test is English-language based and, undoubtedly, the questions reflect the obsessions of English-language speakers, or those who use the English as their main access-language for the Internet.   

It's quite a sad question really and reflects the genuine anxiety that is out there about Korea - presumably, North Korea and the fear that Pyongyang is stacked high with nuclear weapons, ready to bring down Western civilisation! 

I'm no expert, but I very much doubt that 'Korea' is going to bomb us.  Despite the occasional media-frenzy about countries in the Axis of Evil - as far as I understand it,

North Korea is an incredibly impoverished nation whose government rattles the sabres of war every now and then but, realistically, doesn't have the ability to seriously threaten either the US or Britain.  That doesn't mean that the situation in North Korea isn't worrying, but it's always good to keep things in perspective and see through the politically-motivated hyperbole.

Do Koreans eat dogs?

Dog on Cable Beach by Me
Well, I guess the answer is yes.  From what I've read, Koreans - particularly Korean men - do occasionally eat dog.  Not pet dogs, but a special kind of dog, Poongsan, whose meat is called Gaegogi and is prepared in a special soup called bosintang - which means 'body nourishing soup'. 

As far as I can tell, it's not an incredibly common practice and the consumption of dog meat is restricted to certain traditions and often hidden from foreign visitors.  It's interesting how obsessed we are (at least, we in the West) about other people's eating habits - I touched on this in a previous blog post about allegations of cannibalism in the South Pacific.  

Do Koreans eat cats?

I very much doubt that this is true, although Koreans may have eaten cats in the past.  Again, I think this obsession with what Koreans eat reveals more about us in the 'West' than it does about Koreans!  Eating cats seems to be particularly taboo to me and I was surprised to see this question appearing, whereas I could have predicted the dog-eating question.  I did come across stories of cat-eating, very recently, when I was researching for my blog post about Jersey during the Nazi occupation

Do Koreans use chopsticks?

Yes, they do and I've read that the tradition in Korea is to use metallic chopsticks, rather than the wooden (or plastic) ones that people use in China and Japan.  Of course, Koreans share a lot of cultural traditions with both China and Japan, but they have a slightly different tradition in Korea, where they use chopsticks and a spoon to eat their meals.  The spoon is used for eating rice.

Are Koreans Chinese?

Korean dancer by Brendan Lally
I found this question a bit strange - Koreans are obviously not Chinese, but I guess I can understand why people would ask, especially coming from a society which is remote from East Asia - it's a bit like saying Are Scottish people English?  Koreans share a lot of their culture with China, especially Manchuria, but they have managed to maintain an independent culture, language and, perhaps, outlook on the world.

After the partition of Korea, North Korea was particularly close to China and received a lot of support from its fellow-Communist neighbour.  China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in the early 1990's and, economically at least, it would seem as though China and South Korea are getting along just fine. 

Do Koreans have middle names?

Korean naming traditions are very interesting and I can understand why this question is so popular as it does indeed look as though all Koreans have a middle name.  Koreans tends to put their family name first (opposite to the Western tradition) - the most common family names being Kim, Lee and Park.  Interestingly, most people share one syllable of their first name with their siblings, although this doesn't seem to be a hard a fast rule.

For example, Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, has three children; two girls, Ban Seon-Yong and Ban Hyun-hee and one son, Ban Woo-hyun - one daughter and son share a common syllable hyun.  It's also interesting that Ban Ki-Moon's wife is called Yoo Soon-taek - Korean women don't give up their birth name when they get married.

Do Koreans have eyelashes?

Detail of Hong Sung Chul's 'Eye' by robpatrick
I found this question to be extremely bizarre!  Why wouldn't Koreans have eyelashes?  It's also worrying that this question is the second most popular in the Do Koreans have . . category. 

From what little I know about Koreans - at least, South Koreans - they have a strong sense of aesthetic and, like many people in East Asia, they spend a lot of money on cosmetics, skin-whiteners and fashion.  Seoul has it's own fashion week and Korean designers, such as Andre Kim and Doo-Ri Chung, are known the world over.

These are just a few of the 'top' questions about Korea - I'm very aware that there are other search engines out there apart from Google and other languages apart from English but, still, I think the results are fairly revealing and an interesting filter which shows Western 'understanding' or obsessions about Korean culture.   

Image credits:

The image of the dog was taken by me on Cable Beach, Broome, Western Australia.  

The image of the dancer is by Dance photographer - Brendan Lally - you can see more of Brendan's images on his photostream

The close-up of Hong Song Chul's art work was taken by Flickr member robpatrick

Thanks to Brendan and Rob for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.