SEOUL - An outpouring of food and other emergency aid following the rail explosion tragedy has opened North Korea for the first time to a fast food craze that is sweeping Asia.
Ramen, the popular South Korean instant noodle snack, is to Koreans what hamburger is to Americans. Spicy and tasty, Korean ramen has gained popularity among the working class. In fact, Korean ramen has even captured gourmet fancy throughout Asia. As a result, scores of fake brands have appeared in those countries, notably China.
"I had never tasted anything like this in my life before I arrived South Korea," said North Korean defector Choo Sung-Ha. The former Kim Il-Sung University student is working now as a reporter for a major newspaper in Seoul.
"I immediately fell in love with it and thought if somehow it was introduced to North Koreans, they will be hooked with the taste and will fight for it."
Choo has become a believer that ramen could contribute to national unification. Other North Korean defectors say that they were served ramen as snacks at the Korean embassy in Beijing and were surprised their children asked for it instead of the steamy rice meals they craved when in North Korea.
Defectors say they had heard about South Korean ramen, but had never tasted it. Only Japanese and Chinese ramen are available at foreign currency shops or from Chinese Korean merchants.
Now, Choo's prediction that ramen will capture North Korean people's appetite may come true. Hundreds of thousands of boxes of ramen are on their way to the town of Ryongchon as aid material for the victims of last month's train explosion. A South Korean vessel arrived at Nampo port on April 30 with 100,000 cups of ramen. Another $100,000 worth of ramen is waiting to be cleared through customs at the Chinese border city of Dandong and 2,550 boxes of ramen donated by Chinese Korean churches have also arrived there. And more will be on the way, as materials donated by South Korean citizens will be transported to the North through overland routes this week.
Lee Joo-Il, 42, a North Korean defector now with NK Net in Seoul as a volunteer worker to help North Korea, said that the citizens of Ryongchon might be the first North Koreans to taste ramen. Their opinion about South Korea would permanently change after this to a positive direction, he said.
"With the international organizations monitoring the distribution of aid materials, it will not be easy for North Korean authorities to hide them or divert them. And believe me, it will make an impact on hungry North Koreans much bigger than Coca Cola or blue jeans, which are often referred as frontier materials for capitalism," Lee said.
Ramen has become Korea's top export among processed agricultural products last year.
Ramen exports are only one facet of the "Korean cultural trend" sweeping Asia. From China to Japan to Vietnam, Korean movies, TV dramas, songs, dances and cuisine are becoming popular.