One of the few ways to get a taste of North Korea, short of leaping through numerous hoops to get a visa to visit the country, is to eat cold noodles (naengmyen). Most South Korean cities and even a few American ones offer several types of North Korean-style noodle restaurants. The version often prepared in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, is mul naengmyen, or cold noodles in broth. It is served in a large metal bowl and looks like a flowering mountain rising up from the sea. Artfully balanced atop the mound of noodles made from buckwheat flour are julienned cucumbers, several slices of beef, half a hardboiled egg, and a few pieces of crisp Korean pear. When prepared Hamhung-style -- named after the industrial city on North Korea's east coast -- noodles are made from sweet potato flour and often topped with raw skate, which has a slightly ammoniac flavor.
The signs in the South advertising Northern-style cold noodles are a reminder of the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. After the Korean War, refugees from the conflict set up stalls in the markets of Seoul to sell the "taste of the north" to those who could no longer travel there. The recipes they brought with them to the south were sometimes the only valuables they carried. In the 1990s, a new wave of North Koreans came to the South and established naengmyen restaurants. Hailing from the North lends a certain authenticity to the preparation of the dish. Whether prepared by the refugees of the 1950s and their descendents, the defectors of the 1990s, or North Koreans themselves in Pyongyang or Hamhung, cold noodles are something that North Koreans are widely credited with doing better than South Koreans.
But the way naengmyen is "consumed" in the South reveals the great disparity between the two countries. There are many jokes in South Korea about the number of North Korean defectors who have only this one marketable skill. Since cooking in Korea is largely a woman's job, the close association of North Koreans with the production and sale of cold noodles subtly feminizes and, according to patriarchal Korean values, devalues them. North Koreans are thus second-class citizens, both those who are unemployed (the majority) and those who are employed only to provide service to the real "breadwinners" of the country. Anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker relates how South Korean textbooks and popular culture often depict North Korea as the younger brother of the more advanced South Korean older brother. Given the cultural associations of naengmyen, wife to husband might be the more appropriate analogy. A recent Joongang Ilbo Photoshop cartoon reinforces this sexist gloss on inter-Korean relations by depicting South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun dressed as a Choson-era husband with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as his bride.
In a divided country, cold noodles serve as an important reminder of a common culture. They also represent a unique contribution that the economically weaker North Korea can bring to the reunification process. But however tasty Pyongyang-style mul naengmyen may be, cold noodles ensure neither a sustainable livelihood for every North Korean defector nor an equal place at the reunification table for North Korea.