Defector wants to show another side of North Korea: its cuisine

Jessie Kim, a North Korean defector, has found success bringing her homeland's dishes to South Korea. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 8 | Jessie Kim, a North Korean defector, has found success bringing her homeland's dishes to South Korea. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- While North Korea frequently conjures images of military parades and missile launches, one defector living in Seoul is working to introduce another side of her homeland: its cuisine.

Jessie Kim, who arrived in South Korea in 2014, runs a catering business and hosts cooking classes specializing in some of the North's signature dishes.


The 31-year-old has even launched her own line of prepared foods under the brand Jessie Kitchen, starting with the North Korean street food staple known as dububap, pockets of fried tofu stuffed with seasoned rice.

At a recent class, Kim taught a group of about a dozen students to make the deceptively simple dish.

"It took me five years to find the right tofu in South Korea," Kim explained to the class. "It has to be soft, like cheese."

Amid a stream of bubbly chatter, Kim sliced the tofu into triangles and fried them to perfection: crispy on the outside while remaining soft and pillowy inside. She demonstrated how to test the oil for the right temperature using a chopstick and explained that the secret to the dish was in her sauce -- a spicy red chili paste that she guards as a trade secret.


When it was time for the students to take over, however, their teacher was not impressed.

"This is the worst class I've ever had," she said with a laugh, chiding the group for its sluggish pace and lack of basic kitchen skills.

Kim grew up in Hyesan, right across the Yalu River from China, and told the class she loved cooking for her family as a child, even if her culinary efforts -- such as a liberal use of that spicy chili sauce, no matter what the dish -- were not always appreciated.

"I believed all good food should be completely red," Kim said. "But my father didn't agree."

When her mother died, an 11-year-old Kim helped the family survive by buying and selling food in the local markets that had emerged in North Korea after a devastating 1990s famine. She quickly found a specialty: "I was known for making the best liquor in my town," Kim said.

Her journey eventually took her across the border into China in 2011, with the help of brokers that traffic in defectors. From there, she eventually made it to South Korea after a lengthy trek through Southeast Asia.

Kim said she couldn't find dububap anywhere when she arrived and started making it on her own. Friends and acquaintances loved it and she soon saw a business opportunity in bringing North Korean food to her new home, where many dishes are unfamiliar despite the close proximity.


While studying at university, Kim entered a start-up competition and won. She has continued to receive funding from incubators and other sources and is working with a center launched last year by South Korea's Ministry of Unification and its Ministry of SMEs and Startups to help young defectors start their own businesses.

Jessie said she also saw a chance to bridge the divide between South Koreans and the more than 33,000 North Korean defectors who live among them but often face tremendous challenges blending in.

"I'm not doing this to show off as a survivor, as a defector," Jessie told the class. "I want to show the real charm of North Korea."

The Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights says defectors struggle with issues ranging from higher rates of unemployment to difficulties forming close relationships with local South Koreans.

Almost one-fifth of respondents to the group's latest annual survey, released in October, said they had thought about returning to North Korea, while nearly one-third described having feelings of hopelessness.

The number of defectors reaching South Korea has plummeted in recent years, as North Korea remains mostly sealed off to the outside world since closing its borders in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to data from the Ministry of Unification, only 67 defectors made it to the South in 2022, following a record low of 63 the year before. Their numbers have been on an overall downward trend for more than a decade, from a high of nearly 3,000 in 2009.

Fewer defectors arriving has added to the challenges that many face making the transition, Park Seong-cheol, senior researcher at NKDB, said.

"When the number of North Korean defectors grows, it may become simpler to settle new arrivals," Park told UPI. "However, as the number of North Korean escapees newly entering South Korea declines, so does interest in the escapees."

A hostile environment on the Korean Peninsula, highlighted by a recent slate of North Korean missile tests and other military provocations, makes things even more complicated for defectors in the South.

"If inter-Korean relations deteriorate, vigilance against North Koreans rises," Park said. "Conversely, if inter-Korean relations improve, sympathy and support for North Korean defectors rises."

Kim has helped raise the profile of North Korean cuisine internationally, making dububap for Angelina Jolie at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Seoul in 2019 and appearing on an episode of the Netflix culinary travel series Somebody Feed Phil.


But her primary focus remains on making a difference at the local level for defectors and South Koreans alike.

"I just hope people here can treat me like a local friend," she said. "And I hope I can be a role model for North Korean defectors. I want to be a bridge between North and South Korea. There is no huge difference between us."

Despite the difficulties she has faced, Kim added that she cherishes the freedom and opportunities she has found in South Korea and wants the same for the people back home.

"I hope our daily lives here can one day be spread back to North Korea," she said.

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