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Dieting in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-07-12

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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While people bundle up in the cold winter, many reveal their bare arms and legs in the hot summer, which is definitely the swimsuit season. 

It’s time to get into shape, with many doing exercise or going on a diet to lose weight. People naturally show greater interest in dieting in the summer. So, do people in North Korea also go on a diet? 

Today, we’ll talk about dieting in North Korea with Kang Mi-jin, chief executive officer of NK Investment Development. 

Many South Koreans are always on a diet but they carry out their diet plans more actively and enthusiastically before the summer. That’s because they hope to lose weight as quickly as possible and fully enjoy the summer. When it comes to dieting or “fight the fat,” North Korea is no exception. 

Since the mid-2010s, North Korean residents have been keen on dieting, which is described by locals as “getting rid of fat.” Previously, North Koreans wore clothes that did not show their body shape. Since the mid-and late-2010s, however, clothes that fit closely to the body have been available, prompting citizens to shed the extra weight. It is assumed that locals have believed that obesity increases the risk of many health problems since the 2000 inter-Korean summit facilitated exchanges with the outside world. 

It seems the concept of dieting appeared in North Korea on the occasion of the three-day inter-Korean summit between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2000. Cross-border exchanges expanded, accelerating the inflow of outside culture, including South Korean cultural content. While watching South Korean TV series, North Korean citizens began to take an interest in fitness and beauty treatments. 

The outfits’ curvy outlines make the women’s body shape look more beautiful. 

A fashion show began to display figure-hugging dresses that had not been recommended in North Korean society before. In 2014, a pro-North Korea newspaper in Japan, the Chosun Sinbo, introduced an instructor that helps North Korean women lose weight. It was a surprising change in North Korea, where plump and sturdily built people had been preferred. 

In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, when many North Koreans starved, skinny people were considered to be poor, while chubby people were the object of envy because they were believed to eat well. Overweight people were perceived as high-ranking officials. Those who have a big belly looked authoritative, gentle and well-off. Also, women with a round and plump face were viewed as an ideal daughter-in-law. First Lady Ri Sol-ju has a round face, not a V-line face. She shows typical beauty standards in North Korea, and that’s probably why she was selected as the wife of the top leader. 

In North Korea, those with belly fat were believed to have the belly of high officials. That means they look authoritative and relaxed, just like high officials of the Workers’ Party, a source of power in the country. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju made her first public appearance at the opening ceremony of the Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground in 2012. She represents women with traditional beauty in North Korea, where plump women with a round face are considered beautiful. These days, however, North Korea is wary of obesity. 

Media outlets show that obesity in North Korea is as serious as malnourishment. According to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO, 32-point-four percent of adult North Koreans were overweight in 2016. The figure is even higher than South Korea’s 30-point-three percent. Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, an increasing number of North Koreans tried to get South Korean health food and nutritional supplements in China, as they became aware that obesity is harmful to their health. It is said that a high percentage of wealthy North Koreans are looking for diet pills to treat obesity, the root of all illnesses. 

In fact, obesity is not really associated with North Korea. In terms of nutrition in the country, it is easy to recall malnutrition, rather than obesity. But the FAO’s report last year shows an unexpected result. As of 2016, the rates of overweight and obesity among adult North Koreans were higher than South Korea’s, and the rates increased sharply. The rates in 2016 rose 12-point-four percentage points from 25 percent in 2000. 

As the number of obese people increased fast, North Korea’s official Korean Central Television aired an unusual animated film titled “Let’s Keep Traffic Order.” In the animated series designed to raise public awareness of traffic safety, an obese student is about to get on a bus and some women criticize the student for using the bus all the time, rather than walking. 

The website of North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health also introduced a doctor who treats obesity with acupuncture, moxibustion and medicinal herbs. Obesity in North Korea may first remind people of leader Kim Jong-un. 

The National Intelligence Service in South Korea told lawmakers in 2016 that Kim Jong-un’s weight continued to increase, from about 90 kilograms in 2012 when he took power, to 120 kilograms in 2014, and to 130 kilograms in 2016. He was believed to suffer from some “lifestyle diseases” due to excessive drinking and eating. 

In a parliamentary audit in October 2020, the spy agency reported that Kim had lost around 20 kilograms, compared to 2019 when he weighed 140 kilograms. The young leader, just like his father and grandfather, is overweight for his height. He also has a family history of cardiovascular disease and stroke. For those reasons, it seems he made several attempts to lose weight. 

Kim Jong-un gained weight rapidly after he came to power in 2012. In 2021, he lost much weight in a relatively short period of time. 

The National Intelligence Service reported that Kim lost ten to 20 kilograms recently and has engaged in public activities, as usual. 

In 2021, the National Intelligence Service said Kim Jong-un weighed about 120 kilograms. His weight loss was even talked about by North Korean residents. Here’s an interview of a Pyongyang citizen. 

We were most heartbroken to see our respected leader looking gaunt. People all say it brought them to tears. 

As the top leader shed weight, North Korea takes the matter of obesity seriously. Through various media outlets, the country stresses the importance of building healthy eating habits and watching one’s weight. Gyms have cropped up in many parts of Pyongyang. 

Many come to Kumrung(금릉) Leisure Complex to lose weight and learn aerobic dance. Come visit us. We’ll teach you well. 

This is an aerobics instructor at Kumrung Leisure Complex, which is a fitness center equipped with modern sports facilities in Pyongyang. A squash coach there stresses that exercise is helpful for weight loss. 

While playing squash, you have to constantly run to follow the ball in limited space. It is more physically demanding than tennis, as the calories burn per minute are about twice those of tennis. 

Being aware of the fact that obesity is detrimental to health, North Korea has released its own version of Diet Coke. 

North Korea has an unsweetened, barley-based soft drink. It is similar to Coke Zero. It contains xylitol, as most sugar-free beverages do. North Korea says that the popular beverage tastes sweet but it does not raise blood sugar levels. It releases and promotes various types of healthy beverages, indicating a change in the nation’s health trend. 

In addition to the sugar-free soft drink, North Korea has developed health products that help prevent and combat obesity, including the blue ginseng seed extract. The keen interest in dieting is well evidenced in meals preferred by the upper class. 

Media say that North Korea’s upper class favor a healthy, balanced diet. Popular healthy meals include chicken wraps and tofu rice. To make chicken wraps, cut chicken breasts in slices and coat them in starch. Season with salt and pepper and fry them. Wrap the meat in leafy vegetables. Chicken breasts are abundant in protein, while vegetables have anti oxidants and dietary fiber. Without a doubt, this is a great diet option. 

To make tofu rice, cut the tofu into a triangular shape and fry the tofu with oil. Cut open the middle of the longest side of the triangle so you can stuff rice in the middle. Make sauce by adding chili powder, vegetables and anchovies, and put the sauce on top of the rice. The food has vegetable protein and an appropriate amount of carbohydrates. It makes you feel full but is less fattening. Tofu rice is popular among locals. 

Some upper-class North Koreans who enjoy healthy meals install exercise equipment at home individually for home workouts. So, is this “diet fever” intense enough to lead to a nationwide craze? 

Some wealthy people in North Korea regulate their food intake for health and beauty treatment. A majority of North Koreans, however, regard dieting as something that can only be found in TV dramas. On March 3 this year, CNN reported that North Korea has hit its worst point in its food shortage since the Arduous March in the 1990s. It also said that even before the pandemic, nearly half of the North Korean population was undernourished, and three years of closed borders can only have made matters worse. 

Ordinary North Koreans are moving around a lot and working hard, so they don’t necessarily have to go on a diet separately. Those who need to watch their weight are mostly rich people who don’t have to work. Polarization has been deepening in North Korea, and its obesity rate is higher than South Korea’s. We have to think about what this means.

Obviously, people in North Korea are interested in weight loss. But the new trend in dieting in North Korea, where more than 40 percent of the population is undernourished, is another indicator of the polarization of food. 

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