I had been reading a lot about North Korea this summer, but watching human faces in documentaries and meeting one in real life ripples a whole other dimension into your heart.
As I watched “Inside North Korea” by Laura Ling, I just couldn’t really focus on her words. While reading books like “Escape from Camp 14” and “Escape from North Korea,” I was so engrossed in the words— the details, the statistics, the stories. But when I saw the faces of these individuals on screen, all I could do was stare at their eyes, their nose, their hair, their smiles and grimaces.
They were my brothers and sisters. I saw the unmistakable features of my mother country in their faces. They looked like they could have been my cousins, my uncles, aunts and grandparents. And I realized, chilled and ashamed, that they could have been me.
I’m late into this North Korean awareness. I’d heard stories about the atrocities in North Korea; my own great grandfather, a prominent official in my hometown, was hauled over to North Korea as a POW and was presumably killed in North Korea. I heard from my parents the famine in North Korea that led its starving people to peel bark off trees to boil and fill their aching stomachs.
But somehow, it never registered—clearly, forcefully— to me that it’s still happening. Right now. To my people. To the relatives that I have lost to a corrupted regime. I was filled with pity and anguish for them.
Then I met a North Korean refugee face-to-face. I got to interview him, and since then I met him a couple more times. I wrote a long article about him that was published recently. That meeting brought yet another dimension to my understanding of North Koreans, especially when he introduced me to more North Korean refugees. I ate and drank with them, listened to their conversations, their jokes and teasings.
These weren’t just my people. They were God’s people. People who suffered many horrors, yes, but still real, ordinary humans like every other human on earth. They care about things I care about. They love good food, they enjoy a good joke, and they discuss pop culture such as “Gangnam Style.”
Too often, pity segregates the pitied from the pitying, and it’s dangerously easy to lump them into one common group. I was guilty of that as well. These people don’t need pity, they need empathy—a subtle but big difference—just as every human being does.
So that brings me back, sort of, to square one: I don’t know the North Koreans. I may know of their condition, their struggles, their tragedies. But I won’t truly know them individually until I get onto a personal scale with them, just as I didn’t know my friends until I started hanging out and sharing things with them.
I may be done with that one article, but I’m still deeply interested in North Korea and its people. I’m actually working on another piece right now about North Korean refugees who struggle with adjusting to their new lives in a new country, and I hope it’ll continue to challenge my perspectives and understanding of this issue.
Here’s one tiny interesting tidbit on North Korea: Did you know naengmyeon (냉면), the uber-popular Korean chilled noodles, originates from North Korea? In North Korea, it’s called raengmyeon (랭면), but the dish is still similar to the ones many South Koreans enjoy regularly during the hot summer days.
It’s a poor man’s dish. Unlike many other Asian noodle dishes, Korean noodle dishes tend to be very simple and modest, because Korea has a long history of poverty and oppression.
Naengmyeon (or Raengmyeon) is yet another basic dish with minimal ingredients: cheap buckwheat noodles, clear broth, maybe some slivers of raw cucumber and Korean pear, and perhaps a boiled egg or shaved meat if you’re feeling luxurious. A drizzle of vinegar and mustard, and you’re in for the most delicious refreshment next to Slurpee.
We’ve got plenty of good naengmyeon places in Los Angeles, but one favorite is Yu Chun Chic Naeng Myun in Koreatown.
I visited Yu Chun with my dear friend Lindsey. She’s been wanting to try Korean food, and since I’m on a mission to explore Koreatown, we teamed up to taste as many Korean restaurants here as we can.
It’s a cozy little place filled with Koreans and served by Koreans with plenty of Korean writing, but you’ll get by well even if you don’t speak or read a speck of Korean. The menu, thankfully, has the dish name and descriptions in English:
But before you try anything else, please. Try the naengmyeon. It’s their specialty.
There are two main types of naengmyeon: the mul—water—naengmyeon, and the bibim—mixed. I went for the traditional mul:
Mul naengmyeon is the Pyongyang-style noodles. It’s soup-based with beef broth, chilled with crushed ice. Mine came with some radish kimchi, julienned cucumbers and radish, and a boiled egg.
The difference between this and the typical naengmyeon was the noodles, which was made with arrowroot starch and kudzu instead of buckwheat for an even chewier consistency. You can tell it’s made with kudzu (or Chic–칡– in Korean) by its darker color.
The noodles are SUPER long. You’ll have to slurp yourself blue before you get to the end of it. If you’re superstitious, leave it long and uncut, since the long noodles are supposed to symbolize longevity. Otherwise, get the server to cut it for you.
Lindsey got the hwae bibim naengmyeon, or mixed naengmyeon with raw fish.
This is just a slight variation of traditional bibim naengmyeon. It’s still the same cold noodles mixed with spicy Korean chili sauce and peppered with toasted sesame seeds, cucumbers and egg, but with the added goodness of marinated raw skate.
Don’t worry about not having the broth. This dish usually comes with a bowl of chilled broth as well to make everything gulp down nicely.
If you’re ever in the area, do pop by Yu Chun! The naengmyeon here is, some say, even better than the ones in South Korea because of its superior quality in broth.
Tonight, I’m off to try another bowl of naengmyeon. This time, it’s to a restaurant owned by a couple of North Korean refugees. More on that on another post.
P.S. If you get the chance, please read this incredible story of a North Korean refugee!