The Koreas

Hankering for North Korean Food? You Might Want to Reconsider.

South Koreans are clamoring for North Korea food and products, but subpar safety standards call for caution.

Hankering for North Korean Food? You Might Want to Reconsider.
Credit: Flickr/ Cynthinee

It has been already a few weeks since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s remarks about Pyongyang’s famous cold noodles during the inter-Korean summit sparked a craze for them in South Korea, but South Korean people’s interests in North Korean foods is still going strong.
Restaurants that serve North Korean dishes are full of customers, while the country’s broadcasters are rushing to air programs introducing these restaurants and different types of food from the North.

South Koreans have not limited their interest to just foods. Online users are busy sharing “interesting” and “bizarre” made-in-North Korea products, including snacks and health supplements, via social media. Some are even directly asking others how they can get such products from the South.

One North Korean toothpaste, for instance, is claimed to not only be a tooth whitener but also effective on insect bites and even useful for back pain. The toothpaste, dubbed Natural Ingredient Toothpaste, will whiten teeth in 10 days while minimizing gum pain and preventing scale, plaque, and periodontitis, according to North Korea’s propaganda news website Sogwang. But the more surprising thing is that it can supposedly be used for insect bites and other skin issues such as burns, eczema, rash, dry patches, and even styes.

“You can also rub it on your back for the pain,” the website claimed.

Another example is a bottled water branded “Bioactive Water” manufactured in North Korea. “The product is popular in North Korea gaining the reputation of ‘magical water’ that cures about 150 different health issues, including cancer,” said the Sogwang website. The website introduced a story of a woman living in Pyongyang who completely cured her cancer and drug addiction by drinking the water for more than two months. The website also claimed the water is effective in improving digestive function, blood vessels, female diseases, and fighting aging.

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Sogwang claimed that both products are “very popular” in foreign countries, without specifying where.

The description of the products are intriguing, but one report might give those in South Korea who hope to try them a second thought.

According to Daily NK, North Korean health supplements available in China were found to contain heavy metals exceeding 200,000 times the standard levels. A source based in China told Daily NK that such health supplements are mostly sold at North Korean restaurants abroad, and are also distributed through online channels such as Chinese and Korean-Chinese websites. Not only are these health supplements not effective, but they are likely to cause various diseases such as neuropathy and Parkinson’s disease due to the presence of heavy metals.

For instance, the product branded as “North Korean Bear Gall Bladder” advertises health benefits including “rejuvenation” of the liver. But according to tests conducted in 2016 by the South Korean government-affiliated National Forensics Service (NFS), the product contains no traces of ursodiol and has been made using gallbladders from pigs.

Another supplement called “Angung Woohwanghwan,” which claims to be effective for nerve issues, was found to contain mercury, arsenic, and lead that exceeded the suggested intake level by South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

North Korean health supplements are manufactured by North Korean governmental organizations such as the State Security Department, with the goal of making foreign money. North Korean health supplements are mostly sold in China, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia and sometimes sold to South Korean tourists through North Korea’s overseas restaurants, the source told Daily NK.

The source also said since there aren’t any health standards for these items in North Korea, the ingredients used in such products are often unknown. The source noted that Chinese people typically stay away from these items now, knowing that they are mostly fake, and it’s mainly the foreign tourists that are buying them.

A recent poll conducted in South Korea shows that 48 percent of respondents said they want to visit North Korea to try the food when the two Koreas are reunified.

One of the most popular ideas submitted to the Reunification Idea Contest held by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification last month was to introduce an online shopping outlet to the South where people can buy products directly from North Korea.

These are just a few examples showing that South Korean interests in North Korean foods and products will continue. But it would be wise to consider carefully before trying these foods and products, especially given the cases in China.