The little restaurant isn’t much to look at. But people come from across South Korea to eat here.
They come for the potato pancakes, the blood sausage and, very often, for a fried street food that many dreamed of back when nearly everyone they knew was hungry. More than anything, though, they come for memories the food brings back of an outcast homeland they may never see again.
“This is the taste of where they came from,” says the restaurant’s owner, a refugee who asks to be identified only by her surname, Choi. “The food here tastes the way it does in North Korea.”
More than 30,000 North Koreans now live in South Korea. Raised amid dictatorial dysfunction, and normally poorly educated, the exiles stumble into a brutally competitive nation where they are regularly disdained by their neighbors.
“Chon-nom” they are often called – “bumpkin.” That derision, combined with their own disillusionment, can churn into a stew of suspicion, resentment and ambivalence. And though they may hate the nation they left behind, many also miss it deeply. Because how can you not miss home?
“Our lives here can be so difficult,” said a North Korean now living in the South. “But finding that restaurant made me so happy.” Choi has built them a tiny island of North Korean life that in a burst of optimism she named Howol-ilga, “People from Different Homelands Come to Gather in One Place.”
“My place is a comfort for them,” says Choi, 39, in a Northern accent so thick it can be barely comprehensible at first to Southerners. “When they come here and find a menu so similar to what they ate back home, they know they can relax.”
That doesn’t surprise Sonia Ryang, an anthropologist at Rice University in Texas who grew up in a pro-North Korea community in Japan, and who has written extensively about the North. To smell injogogibap was to dream of filling your stomach at a time when starvation was wiping out entire neighborhoods. “Far from not wanting to remember, they want to remember,” says Ryang. “Because it was proof that they were alive.”
Choi’s explanation is simpler. During the famine, she says, food was something that could always make people happy.