North Korea’s isolation and totalitarian regime has long been the subject of global scrutiny, earning it the nickname “The Hermit Kingdom” in the mid-nineteenth century after spurning relations with European powers infringing on East and Southeast Asia. The internet is widely inaccessible for citizens, contact with tourists is strictly limited, and there is essentially no independent broadcast media. Radio and televisions are locked into government stations, and it is against the law to listen to foreign broadcasts, which the government also blocks. On the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also called North Korea, was placed in Tier 3, the lowest grade, due in part to cases of forced labor and sex trafficking. It was also named the most isolated country in the world by World Policy Journal.
When it comes to food, North Korea’s recent past has also been tragic. The great famine of the 1990s, roughly between 1994 and 1998, caused the deaths of between 600,000 and 2.5 million individuals. Kim Jong-il, the leader at the time, both denied aid to the most at-risk regions until 1997 and punished those who attempted to buy, earn, smuggle, or steal food. A number of North Koreans still die of starvation every year, but many more suffer from insufficient diets. The divide between the wealthy and the poor in North Korea is significant, with the average citizen surviving on an annual income of $1,000 to $2,000 and frequenting foods like boiled rice, maize porridge, and kimchi, with little to no protein.
We’ve compiled a list of nine customary foods found in the North Korean diet. Take a peek inside an oft-isolated culture to see what typical food looks like for over 24 million citizens.