Amount of calories consumed in North Korea each day: 2110, compared to 1,590 in Eritrea and 3,800 in the United States. [Source: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Wikipedia ]

The elite eat pork and sometimes beef, while the middle classes eat rabbit. The lowest classes rarely get meat. Dog is still eaten in North Korea as it is in South Korea. Rice too is associated with the elite while corn meal is the primary staple for everyone else.

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “About 16 million of North Korea's 25 million people rely on state-provided rations of cereals. Reflecting the lack of variety in the fields, the average North Korean diet is alarmingly low on fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits. Stunting from chronic malnutrition is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in some areas. But according to U.N. monitors, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In Pyongyang, people seem to be well-fed. The countryside — which I did not have the opportunity to visit — may be a different matter. Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea’s food security at the School of Oriental and African studies in London, laid it out for me: “North Korea of 2017 is not the North Korea of the mid-1990s, when there was a famine,” she said. Malnutrition is now quite common; starvation is quite rare. “We have good nutritional statistics because all the big U.N. organizations have been in North Korea for 25 years continuously,” she added. “North Korea is doing much, much better than people in India and Pakistan.” [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2017]

"You'll never catch North Koreans missing a meal by choice," Simon Cockerell, who has visited North Korea more than 150 times, told "Anyone over the age of 20 there has memories of living in a famine. As such, food is very important and the culture is culinary. People know that missing a meal is an extravagance that they used to not have, so they really go for it. There's no real concept of leaving food." [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Muchies, February 2016', January 11, 2017]

North Korea’s founder and first leader Kim Il Sung promised bountiful supplies rice for everyone under the slogan “Rice is Communism.” According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “White rice and meat soup was once a symbol of good food in the North Korean rhetoric. It is not certain whether the population still eats white (steamed) rice due to the severe food shortage that became clear only in recent years. The visitors from overseas are normally given abundant food to eat, including meat, vegetables, dairy products, and fruits. However, ordinary citizens do not eat such a variety of food. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“All the food is state regulated, and this precludes obtaining any special food. For state-sponsored banquets, food is supplied abundantly, accompanied with nearly endless supply of wines and liqueurs. However, for ordinary people's ceremonies, such as the sixtieth birthday that is traditionally celebrated as a commemoration of longevity, it would not be the case.

Food Rations

Under the North Korean ration system, North Koreans have traditionally exchanged coupons for subsidized rice and other foods once a month at a distribution center. The aim of the food rationing was to provide an adequate diet for all North Koreans. Many supplemented their rations by buying foods at local markets and from vendors.

In the 1960s and 70s food rations were distributed twice a month and included flour, corn and just three kilograms of rice per person. People grew vegetables at home and often collected wild plants for food. Some people secretly brewed beer and sold it on the black market.

Housing and food rations traditionally have been heavily subsidized. However, the party, state, and military elites have traditionally had access to better foods than the average citizen. Natural disasters in the 1990s led to a breakdown in food rationing and many North Koreans fled to China in search of food. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

There are five categories of social control: residence, travel, employment, clothing and food, and family life. Change of residence is possible only with party approval. Those who move without a permit are not eligible for food rations or housing allotments and are subject to criminal prosecution. The ration system does not recognize individuals while they are traveling, which further curtails movement.

The food rationing system was weakened by the cut off Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The system collapsed in various parts of the country during the mid and late 1990s due to famine and shortages. In the winter of 1996-97 during the great famine the nationwide food ration had a fallen to 100 grams (3.5 ounces a day), the equivalent of half a bowl of rice or about 350 calories. The U.N. minimum daily level of food for refugees is 500 grams or 1,750 calories.

In the summer of 2002, North Korea made radical economic reforms, devaluing its currency by 98 percent, largely abolishing a 50-year-old ration-card system and raising wages and prices as much as 500-fold. In some places in 2005, after bad harvests, daily government rations were cut from 300 grams to 250 grams of staples such as rice — less than two bowls. In 2012 after drought conditions in southern North Korea, the country’s "cereal basket", daily rations were reduced to one or two kilograms (2.2 to 4.4 pounds) of corn to each household.

Lack of Food in North Korea

Ian Vandaelle wrote in the National Post: “North Koreans suffer from a constant lack of supplies, including grain, rice and proteins. Even the food that is available is so scarce and expensive that the average state-worker can only buy about two kilograms of rice with their monthly wage, about US$158. The state ration system reportedly provides only 200 grams of grain for each person per day, about a third of the minimum daily energy requirement. Inflation has run rampant, pushing food prices to new highs. North Korea relies heavily on foreign aid and imports to feed its citizens, but still struggles to provide enough food. The World Food Programme says North Korea will need to import 739,000 tons of grain this year to feed its citizens, but can only afford 325,000 tons. [Source: Ian Vandaelle, National Post, December 20, 2011]

In May 2019, Reuters reported: “ Four in ten North Koreans are chronically short of food and further cuts to already minimal rations are expected after the worst harvest in a decade, the United Nations said. It found that 10.1 million people were suffering from severe food insecurity, “meaning they do not have enough food till the next harvest,” U.N. World Food Program spokesman Herve Verhoosel said. Verhoosel said the word “famine” was not being used in the current crisis, but it might come to that in a few months or years. “The situation is very serious today - that’s a fact.” [Source: Tom Miles, Reuters, May 3, 2019]

“For its assessment the WFP, one of only a few aid agencies with access to the country, gained widespread entry to farms, households, nurseries and food distribution centers. Verhoosel blamed a combination of dry spells, heat waves and flooding for the new crisis, which the U.S. State Department said was the government’s fault. “The DPRK regime continues to exploit, starve, and neglect its own people in order to advance its unlawful nuclear and weapons program,” a Department spokeswoman said, adding that it could meet its people’s needs if it redirected state funds.

North Korea has for years relied on regular supplies of U.N. food aid. Its agricultural output of 4.9 million tonnes was the lowest since 2008-2009, leading to a food deficit of 1.36 million tonnes in the 2018/2019 marketing year, the WPF report said. Prospects for the 2019 early season crops of wheat and barley were worrisome. “The effects of repeated climate shocks are compounded by shortages of fuel, fertilizer and spare parts crucial for farming,” Verhoosel said.

Potatoes in North Korea

With the help of South Korea and the United States, North Korea has tried to reduce the chances of famine and dependance on foreign food aid and boost agricultural production by making changes such as growing hardy potatoes instead of rice. The biggest problem with the effort has been a cultural preference for rice over potatoes but no doubt eating potatoes is preferable to eating corn starch mixed with grass, which is what many people subsisted on during the famine in the 1990s. .

There were reports in the North Korean press in the 2000s that Kim Jong Il himself was visiting potato farms instructing grateful farmers how better to grow, store and transport potatoes. He also reputedly offered help with know-how on preventing potatoes from rotting and offered some tasty potato recipes for soups and doughnuts made with potatoes.

The official Rodong newspaper declared: “We have started to see the potato revolution as an ideological revolution. The great leader said from now on, potatoes should not be considered a secondary food but a primary food. He said that people “can make any dish out of potatoes and that potatoes are tasty too.”

Hunger and Food Security in North Korea

Reports by the World Food Program claim food security in North Korean is deteriorating due to reduced food production and a growing food gap. An April 2016 report from the organization said that 18 million people living in North Korea do not eat a sufficiently diverse diet, and according to a 2012 United Nations report “a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting. Because of poor sanitation, diarrhea is a leading killer of children.” [Source: Sophie Williams, Quartz, August 9, 2016]

Though Pyongyang is better supplied than other cities, feeding the people is a major problem for North Korea. In March 2017, the United Nations reported: that two in five North Koreans were undernourished, more than 70 percent of the population relied on food aid, and most North Koreans also lacked access to basic healthcare or sanitation. Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the two main causes of death for children under five, the report said. [Source: BBC, March 22, 2017]

The BBC reported: Humanitarian needs had been exacerbated by "recurrent natural hazards", such as frequent floods and drought. "Amidst political tensions, an estimated 18 million people across DPRK [North Korea] continue to suffer from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services," the UN report said. "Furthermore, 10.5 million people, or 41 percent of the total population, are undernourished."

“The UN report said the situation had improved since the 1990s famine that left hundreds of thousands dead "in part as a result of humanitarian assistance". However, two-thirds of North Koreans still depend on food being distributed by the state. The UN report said rations of items such as cereals and potatoes had been reduced from 380g per person per day to just 300g for several months last year. "Fluctuations over the year are normal," it said, but added that state "rations are consistently lower than the government target of an average of 573g per person per day".

Hunger in North Korea During the Famine in 1990s

In the 1990s, as man as three million North Koreans died in a famine caused by floods, poor agricultural policies and other reasons. In 1998 about 16 percent of children were malnourished, and another 62 percent suffered from illnesses related to undernourishment.

Reporting on hunger in Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The miner is a pleasant man with a broad, welcoming smile, handsome despite a missing bottom tooth. He seems cheerful by disposition, but when he talks about the famine, a scowl spreads across his face. "They don't worry so much about ideology now," he said. "All anybody cares about is finding enough food to get through the day." The miner estimated that four or five of his housing block's 30 residents, and half of his 3,500 co-workers at the Poam coal mine, had died of starvation and related illnesses since the mid-1990s. For years, one of the hallmarks of North Korea's government was its public distribution system, which doled out food and other goods to citizens nearly for free. The regime considered coal mining a strategic occupation, and miners were given extra rations. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“But in the early 1990s, the lights in the mines went out, as did the pumps that kept the shafts dry. Beams rotted and equipment corroded. As the mines ceased production, the rations stopped. The children were the first to start dying, then the elderly. Next to perish were men, who seemed to need more calories to survive than women. Chongjin residents learned to recognize the stages of starvation. First, the victims become listless and too weak to work. Their vision grows blurry. They become bone-thin, then startlingly, their torsos bloat. Toward the end, they just lie still, sometimes hallucinating about food.

“While some people seem to fade away, others die in agony, their intestines blocked when they can't digest substitute foods, such as corn powder and oak leaves. Particularly lethal to children's digestive systems are ersatz rice cakes — molded out of a paste made from the inner bark of pine trees. Among the victims was the miner's 60-year-old father, an otherwise strong and robust man who had never been ill as long as he could remember. The miner's best friend, a co-worker and childhood buddy, dragged himself out to the mountains to look for food and never returned.

“The miner also vividly recalled his daughter running home screaming because her best friend, the 5-year-old boy next door, had died of a blockage. "He died on his father's back while he was carrying him home from the hospital. My daughter saw his body and came home crying. She said Myong Chol was lying still and not moving," the miner said. "Five or six of her friends died after that. We just had to tell her they moved away to another neighborhood."

What People Were Eating in the Famine

Most people ate two meals a day, the main one consisting of watery vegetable soup, a bowl of steamed corn, corn starch mixed with cabbage stocks, and sub-standard versions of kimchi.

One aid worker told the New York Times in June 1997, "We stopped and asked to see the head of the household and I said to him, 'What are you eating?' He showed us a bowl that looked like a small cereal bowl, maybe twice the size of a teacup. It was full of cornmeal gruel, white cornmeal with a lot of water in it, kind of the consistency if watered-down Cream of Wheat. He said he got three of those a day."

In the winter of 1996-97 people ate half of the corn crop as premature green kernels. The nationwide food ration had a fallen to 100 grams (3.5 ounces a day), the equivalent of half a bowl of rice or about 350 calories. The U.N. minimum daily level of food for refugees is 500 grams or 1,750 calories.

At that time people were observed picking up individual grains of rice in fields for food. One Korean Chinese who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw a hungry boy virtually steal a pieced of brownish cake from a person's mouth and gulp it down without chewing it. The person who lost his cake beat the young boy their until he threw it up and put it into his mouth."

Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the New York Times, “To survive has required tenacity. Koreans are reported even to have murdered children and mixed their flesh with pork to eat. When I have encountered North Korean refugees in Asia, they look barely human — stunted figures with sallow, terrified faces. Some North Koreans have tried to grow their own food, potentially a sign of independent thinking. But for years Kim had them stopped.” [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Bark, Worms and Grass for Food During the North Korean Famine

To survive people with inadequate food rations ate excavated roots, the inner lining of tree bark, leaves, rice mixed with wood chips, ground corn cobs, cakes made from wild grass, noodles made from seaweed, “namul” (edible wild plants and herbs), mountain herbs such as arrowroot. and grass soup to survive. The consumption of tree bark reportedly caused intestinal problems and bleeding.

North Korean television ran programs telling people how to prepare grass and roots. "Today, I will introduce you to tasty and healthy ways to eat wild grass," the announcer said. "Parsley will be good after being briefly cooked in boiling water or fried. Making kimchi out of parsley will also be good." One North Korean man told the Los Angeles Times, "Eating wild plants is nothing — it's just that we're eating more of it these days. It's not easy. But our people are firmly united to overcome this national difficulty.:

An aid worker told Newsweek he saw "old wizened elderly women on their hands and knees in newly plowed fields, trying to find roots for the family soup pot." Journalist Orville Schell said he went to a golf driving range where peasants dodged golf balls, looking for edible plants in the fairway.

There were stories of children eating frogs and rats to survive. Children ate worms picked from the ground outside Pyongyang. In rural areas they picked up dirt and tried to eat it. Some people got very sick from eating cattle feed. The government urged North Koreans to raise rabbits and ostriches.

Finding Food During the 1990s North Korean Famine

Mina Yoon escaped North Korea in 2010. During the 1990s, when around one million people died from starvation, she recalls how her family ate tree bark and rice roots to survive. She wrote in NK News, “Because of the long-lasting famine, it was very competitive to find anything edible. When you went out to the mountains, plenty of people were already competing to dig out some edible herbs. Farmland was another battlefield to dig out the rice roots remaining in the soil. You might wonder what they would want rice roots for. People dug out the rice roots that remained after reaping, and they ground them into powder and made porridge or maybe some noodles. Though not as good as the fruits, the roots still have some useful nutrients inside. Food made from rice root tasted so awful, though, that for the first time in my life, I realised that some food is tasteless even for starving people. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]

“The most popular substitute food in those days was rice bran cake, pine bark cake, wormwood cake and cake made with wine lees. Rice bran, which is called mi-gang in North Korea, is the powder produced in the process of polishing brown rice. My grandmother kneaded the powder and made us rice cake in a cauldron. We waited for the rice cake to be cooked, and because there was not enough firewood, the flame was not strong enough the wait felt like a couple of decades. My little brother, who could not wait for the cauldron to finally boil, eventually he fell asleep before the cake was done.

Even in those hungry, painful days, there were some happy events we waited for. The days we ate pine bark cake were like Christmas to us. If you remove the thick, tough outer layer of pine trees, there’s another layer before you get to the white flesh of the tree. There’s a thin brown film between the outer skin and the white core. People peel off that thin film and pound it into fine powder. Then they add a couple tablespoons of flour to make a cake. So, basically, it is a cake made with tree bark and it actually tasted quite decent.

“However, it had one severe side effect: my little brother, the youngest, ate the cake and got constipation that was so bad that it caused him to burst into tears. Remembering my little brother sobbing loudly, now my heart aches again because he is still in North Korea. He was only four-years-old then, way too young to understand the hardships of life. Even at such a young age, he always thought of his family.

Kim Jong Il and Food

Kim Jong Il was the leader of North Korea from 1994 to 2011. At least two million North Koreans died of hunger-related causes under his watch while he and his family indulged A Japanese sushi chef who worked for ten years in North Korea wrote a tell-all book “I Was Kim Jong Il’s Cook” under the pen name Kenji Fujimoto. He told the Washington Post, Kim “particularly enjoyed sashimi so fresh that he could start eating the fish as its mouth is still gasping and the tail is still thrashing. I sliced the fish so as not to puncture any of its vital organs, so of course it was till moving. Kim Jong Il was delighted. He would eat it with gusto.”

Fujimoto said that he was sent around the world to find delicacies for Kim Jong Il: caviar from Iran, mangos and papayas from Thailand, pork from Denmark, melons from China, fresh fish from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. He said he was once sent on a special trip to Tokyo buy US$100 worth of Kim Jong Il’s favorite rice cakes, with mugwort inside. Fujimoto calculated that each bite-size cake ended up costing about US$120. Kim even sent envoys to Beijing to bring back McDonald's hamburgers, he said. The chef escaped from Pyongyang by saying he needed to go to Japan to stock up on sea urchin for a special new dish (for a long time he kept his whereabouts secret because he was worried about being assassinated by North Korean spies.

Kim Jong Il apparently had a fondness for pizza, Portuguese oranges, Pakistani camel's thigh and Russian bear paws. He imported pizza ovens and brought in pizza chefs from Italy and had them teach North Korean chefs how to make pizza. One of the chefs said he had to participate in a “brainwashing” session on the elimination anchovies after some officials complained Kim’s dishes were too salty.

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times in 2004: “So insatiable is the appetite of the “Dear Leader” for sushi that he regularly defies medical advice and secretly asks for the fattiest fish to be brought to him. Mr Kim is particularly fond of shark’s fin and eats it several times a week prepared in a different recipe.” Fujimoto “describes the great satisfaction of cooking for a man who would drink soup from the serving tureen if he liked it enough: “He was a gourmand and would love trying any new type of food, but he carried his own case full of pills. I think there was medicine for the heart, liver, stomach and so forth. The chefs were told what had been banned by the doctors, but he couldn’t resist mackerel and tuna. He would give me the order for these in English so people around him didn’t understand.” [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, July 8, 2004]

Kim Jong Il: A Gourmet Not a Glutton

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Kim Jong Il “has spent an incalculable chunk of his nation's limited wealth feeding himself. His library has thousands of cookbooks and texts on gastronomy. Chefs have been flown in from around the world to cook for him. An institute in Pyongyang, the capital, staffed by some of North Korea's best-trained doctors, is devoted to ensuring that Kim eats not only the most delectable but also the most healthful foods - all the more important for the 5-foot-2 Kim, whose weight once pushed 200 pounds. "The purpose of the institute is 100 percent to prolong the life of Kim Jong Il," said Seok Young Hwan, a physician who worked there and later defected to South Korea. He said 200 professionals were working just in the division that handled Kim's diet. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2004]

“Former North Korean diplomats who were stationed abroad have told South Korean intelligence that they were asked to send each country's delicacies to Pyongyang for Kim's consumption - among them such exotic items as camel's feet, said a South Korean biographer, Sohn Kwang Joo. Kim insists that his rice be cooked over a wood fire using trees cut from Mt. Paektu, a legendary peak on the Chinese border, according to a memoir written by a nephew of Kim's first wife. He has his own private source of spring water. Female workers inspect each grain of rice to ensure that they meet the leader's standards.

“The leader's obsession with food apparently dates to his boyhood. Like many children, he was a fussy eater. Researchers found a note written by a teacher in 1952 - the height of the Korean War - detailing how to feed the 10-year-old heir to the North Korean leadership. (Kim's tastes at the time ran to more humble Korean dishes such as bean-paste soup and cabbage-wrapped rice, according to the note.) Jo Yung Hwan, a South Korean scholar, says Kim's preoccupation with food grew after the death of his mother when he was 7. Jo was particularly struck by an account of a Japanese waitress who claimed that Kim as an adult liked to have food put in his mouth as if he were a child. "That kind of behavior comes from lack of motherly love," Jo wrote in a 1996 psychological study of Kim.

“Kim is believed to have moderated his ways on the advice of his doctors. He reportedly quit smoking in 1999 and lost weight. He switched from cognac to red wine. "He was really obese. We recommended that he eat more traditional Korean foods and natural herbs that were good for the heart and veins," said Seok, the doctor who worked as a researcher at the Long Life Research Institute in Pyongyang. The institute, founded in the 1970s to oversee the health of the North's founder, also commandeered exotic foodstuffs for Kim Jong Il that were supposed to have medicinal properties. These included blue-shark liver from Angola and a lion extract procured in Tanzania.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, the Russian official who accompanied Kim on the train in Russia, said his menu usually consisted of 15 to 20 dishes. Pulikovsky emphasized, however, that Kim was not a glutton but a gourmet. "His dining is very moderate and modest. He would take only a little, as if to taste it," wrote Pulikovsky. "You get the feeling that he knows what's what in culinary matters." Kim's sushi chef also was impressed with his boss' knowledge of cuisine. "You should enjoy a meal first with your eyes, second with your nose and third with your tongue,” Kim liked to say.”

Enjoying Delicacies and Pretty Girls with Kim Jong-il on His Train

“The Russian wrote, ''Kim Jong Il can be called a gourmet.'' ''It was possible to order any dish of Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and French cuisine,'' he wrote of the specially outfitted train that carried Mr. Kim. The North Koreans made sure that live lobsters were shipped to the train to provide Mr. Kim with fresh delicacies during the tedium of crossing Siberia. Cases of Bordeaux and Burgundy red wines were flown from Paris. Even President Putin's private train ''did not have the comfort of Kim Jong Il's train,'' Mr. Pulikovsky wrote. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, December 3 2002]

“Impressed with the brown bread at a Khabarovsk restaurant, North Korea's leader had an aide fly 20 loaves to Pyongyang so that it would be fresh on his arrival. On a stop at Omsk, the North Korean rejected a plate of barrel-salted pickles, dismissing the offer as shoddily marinated cucumbers from Bulgaria, not prepared in the authentic Russian style. ''Then they served tiny pelmenis, kopeck-size, in a small frying pan baked under cheese and mayonnaise,'' Mr. Pulikovsky wrote, recalling crestfallen faces on the Siberian hosts at the arrival of the Russian meat dumplings. ''Kim Jong Il picked at them with a fork and said: 'What kind of pelmeni are these? They should be big, boiled and in broth.'''

“With meals on the train stretching sometimes for four hours or more, entertainment often took the form of singing Russian and Korean songs. The North Korean leader, who had left his wife back in Pyongyang, particularly enjoyed the charms of four young singers, who were introduced as ''lady conductors,'' Mr. Pulikovsky wrote. When his government ministers came into his office, ''they bent deferentially in a deep bow and remained like this until there was a hardly visible sign from their commander that they could straighten their backs,'' wrote Mr. Pulikovsky.

Making Pizza for Kim Jong-il

Hugh Levinson wrote in the Seoul Times: “Few foreigners get close to Kim Jong-il. But one Italian chef got close enough to make his pizza. The call came in the middle of the night, just as Ermanno Furlanis, a computer expert and part-time chef at the Pizza Institute in northern Italy, was trying to get to sleep. The call came from a top chef at a swanky hotel. He had been contacted by some foreign diplomats who wanted experts for culinary demonstrations "in a communist country in the Far East." That country was North Korea. It was the start of a bizarre adventure into the corridors and kitchens of power, which Mr Furlanis has recounted for a BBC Radio 3 documentary. [Source: Hugh Levinson, Seoul Times, August 11, 2006]

“A few days after the call, he found himself and a group of fellow chefs on their way to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. He was whisked through the city to a gleaming, empty clinic, for a complete medical check-up. They conducted X-rays, an electrocardiogram and a brain scan, and took magnetic resonance imaging, urine samples and a sizeable blood sample. "I was by now worried out of my mind," said Mr Furlanis. "Here was proof that we were completely in their power, and they could do with us as they pleased." They were sequestered in a vast, white marble palace, before being told to prepare for a trip to "a place at the seaside."

“The destination turned out to be a military base, protected by four layers of barbed wire and guards, and surrounded by heavy anti-aircraft guns. There, Mr Furlanis discovered that his task was to teach pizza-making skills to three army officers, who took the job remarkably seriously. "While I worked, my pupils, pen and notebook in hand, took down every detail while the rest of the staff, a dozen people or so, gathered round to watch the proceedings in an absorbed silence." Mr Furlanis said that one of the students even asked to count the olives he used and to measure the distance between them. "I don't know if he was just pulling my leg, but he looked totally serious," he said.

“After several days of tuition came the climax of the adventure — a trip to a huge ship anchored offshore. The North Korean staff had moved Mr Furlanis' entire pizzeria to a pontoon raft moored alongside the ship, where he started to work. Suddenly, there was huge agitation on board. Crossing the gangplank to the ship was — apparently — Kim Jong-il himself. "I am not in the position to say whether it really was him," said Mr Furlanis, "but our chef, who had no reason to fib, was, for the space of several minutes, utterly speechless. "He said he felt as if he had seen God, and I still envy him this experience."

Furlanis published a three-part memoir in magazines about his adventure in North Korea in 1997. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Furlanis was alternately appalled and fascinated by the luxuriousness of the walled seaside compound where he worked. The kitchen, he says, was a vast, white-tiled room equipped with the finest appliances, as antiseptically clean as an operating room and as reverently hushed as a church. It was, in short, a temple of gastronomy. "I doubt if even Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude," Furlanis wrote. During his three weeks in North Korea, Furlanis glimpsed Kim only from afar. Furlanis' minders never uttered Kim's name aloud but referred cryptically to a very important guest who, Furlanis was admonished, didn't want his food too salty and hated anchovies on his pizza. Nevertheless, Furlanis and other cooks were treated as honored guests. They were paid well, lavishly wined and dined, and pampered in much the same style as Kim himself. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2004]

"Every now and then, a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses and one box of prized French wines," Furlanis wrote. "That evening, dinner - a feast worthy of Petronius' 'Satyricon' - was served with an excellent Burgundy." Nonetheless, Furlanis objected that all the wine came from France. Three days later, a courier brought a shipment of Barolo wines from Italy.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.