The restaurant in Incheon, South Korea, isn’t fancy. It’s across from an empty lot. Boxes of dried fish sit by the front window. A dirty mop stands in the corner. The walls are a sickening green color.
But people come from across South Korea to eat here. They come for the potato pancakes, the blood sausage, and for a fried street food with a long name. More than anything, they come for memories of a homeland they may never see again.
“This is the taste of where they came from,” says the restaurant’s owner. She is a refugee who wants to be identified only by her surname, Choi. “The food here tastes the way it does in North Korea.”
In NK, generations of dictators have vowed to end a centuries-old struggle against hunger.
North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, proclaimed in the 1960s: “Socialism is rice!” He promised that everyone would soon eat meat soup and rice every day.
Instead, South Korea became a global power, but the North lurched into poverty, resulting in a horrific famine in the 1990s. Malnutrition is still a problem there.
Today, more than 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea. They’ve fled poverty, hunger, and an oppressive regime.
Choi left in 2012. She opened her restaurant two years later. And even though Northerners may abhor the nation they left, many also miss it—because how can you not miss home?
For most, life in the South is far from ideal. “Our lives here can be so difficult,” says a North Korean living in the South. Northerners can face injustice and unkindness. “But finding that restaurant made me so happy.” She doesn’t want her name used. It’s been years since she fled NK. But she’s still fearful for herself and relatives left behind.
Choi named her restaurant Howol-ilga, “People from Different Homelands Come To Gather in One Place.”
“My place is a comfort for them,” she says. “When they come here and find a menu so similar to what they ate back home . . . they can relax.”
One of Choi’s best-loved dishes is injogogibap, a street food invented during the famine. It’s bits of leftover rice and fried tofu stuffed into hot dog-sized tubes. It’s the closest thing to meat most people could afford.
During the famine, the smell of frying injogogibap wafted from food stalls into streets filled with hungry people. Even today, some exiles dream about it.
Choi explains. During the famine, food was something that always made people happy. “Eating is joyful.”
“For here [Christians] have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” — Hebrews 13:14