By Kang Hyun-kyung
In South Korea, being fat is considered a source of concern. People are obsessed with losing weight because they are taught being overweight is related to many health problems. Being thin or slim is also widely viewed as a prerequisite to attractiveness.
Contrary to these views, being overweight is something admirable in North Korea. If you are fat, people would think you are part of an upper-class family.
Kyung-hwa, author of the book "In North Korea That I Had Lived" released by the Media Ilda publishing house, said southerners' negative views of being overweight are one of the factors that caused her to encounter culture shock after she arrived in the South.
Kyung-hwa is the author's pen name and she declined to disclose her real name as well as other personal information when contacted through her publishing house.
In the book, the author, who was born and lived in North Korea for three decades before she escaped to the South in 1998 for a better life, details how the two societies are different by shedding light on their unique cultures and lifestyles.
Chapter 10, for example, elaborates on how obesity is viewed in the two Koreas.
In North Korea, it reads, rich people take deer velvet injections to gain weight, whereas some South Koreans undergo plastic surgery to get rid of fat.
The author shares an amusing mistake about obesity she made when she first arrived in South Korea in 1998. She said she noticed several men with noticeable belly fat walking in the street, a scene she saw through the window of the car she was in after arriving at Gimpo International Airport. "Wow, there seems to be a lot of executives in the South," she said to the man who had picked her up from the airport.
The guy didn't understand the context of her remark and asked her what she was talking about. She pointed to the men in the street, explaining they would be perceived in the North as wealthy people or high-ranking officials. The man laughed, telling her that she is "insightful" and there are plenty of executives in the South. Kyung-hwa said she later realized he was joking around.
|"In North Korea That I Had Lived" by Kyung-hwa|
Differing perceptions toward obesity seem to have played a part in shaping their own beauty standards, according to the book. In North Korea, women with chubby faces and moderate height are popular among men, whereas tall women with clear-cut, slim faces and body shapes are considered beautiful in the South.
Compared with North Koreans, the author says South Koreans are knowledgeable about nutrition and well-informed about the deleterious health impact of fat. Despite this, she wonders why so many South Koreans are unhealthy. "South Koreans seem to have more illnesses than northerners who are relatively malnourished. I am struggling to understand where the gap between their awareness of nutrition and health status comes from," she says.
The author describes herself as a food refugee.
According to Media Ilda staff, the author is in her early 50s, born in Gaeseong, and escaped from her homeland in the mid-1990s when crop shortages, caused by deluges, led to a massive famine in North Korea which reportedly killed millions.
Searching for food, she crossed the border for China and then went to a third country in Asia before she arrived safely in Seoul in 1998. After working as a building cleaner for two decades, she quit the job recently due to her declining health.
The author observes cuisines of the two Koreas also reflect deep cultural differences. She said South Korean food is too sweet and spicy to her and that using too much sugar and spices makes food lose its own flavor.
Compared to spicy and sweet South Korean food, North Korean food is rather bland. "Spices never outshine the taste of the main ingredients, so one can enjoy the genuine taste of the main ingredient if they try North Korean food," her book reads.
The author is critical of alleged misinformation about North Korea.
Citing two North Korean music bands ― Wangjaesan Light Music Band and Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, she dismisses rumors about their members.
In the South, they were described as sexual slaves for the previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The author, however, says the allegation is baseless, blaming fellow North Korean-born defectors and South Koreans for fueling rumors about the bands. According to her, ordinary North Koreans are eager to watch their performances and she had never heard any rumors about them.
She says cultural assimilation has remained a barrier for many North Korean-born people in the South, claiming it will emerge as a key issue if the two Koreas are unified in the future.