SEOUL—North Koreans are consuming increasing quantities of brand-name instant noodles, and the three-minute fast food packages are among the hottest gifts at this year's traditional harvest festival, or Chuseok.
Top brand on the menu for harvest gifts this year is Shin Ramyun, made by South Korean food manufacturer Nong Shim in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang.
"North and South Koreans are one people, and that is why people in the North like the spicy, but refreshing taste of Shin Ramyun, a product rooted in the tradition of Korean cuisine," said Jang Jae Ku, director of public affairs at Nong Shim’s headquarters in Seoul.
Jang said Nong Shim had sold somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 boxes of Shenyang-made Shin Ramyun in the isolated Stalinist state on a monthly basis in 2008, with 20 packs of instant noodles per box.
He said that one box of instant noodles changes hands in North Korea for around 30,000 North Korean won (U.S. $9.00), a steep price for ordinary citizens in the communist North.
"In North Korea it is only the high-ranking government officials and military officers who can afford to give and receive boxes of Shin Ramyun as a present," Seoul-based North Korean defector Lee Nakyung said.
"I was in the military, and that is why I had an opportunity to taste instant noodles while in North Korea," she said.Special gift
In South Korea, where individual buyers consume around 85 bowls of ramen noodles annually, twice as much as their Japanese counterparts, the humble instant noodle was also once prized as a harvest-time gift.
Instant ramen noodles were first manufactured in South Korea in 1963, during the post-war era in which food was less plentiful and diverse than today.
In the 1960s and 70s, ramen noodles produced by South Korean foodstuff manufacturer Samyang were a popular gift generally sent to friends or older people on major Korean holidays like Lunar New Year and Chuseok.
Now, the North also produces a home-grown variety of ramen instant noodles, known as "Curly Noodles."
In the 1980s, these instant noodles were part of the standard rations distributed to the entire population of North Korea.
Instant noodles were also sent in balloon packages flown across the border by the South Korean authorities to the North until the late 1990s.
Kang Woo Sung, a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in 2008, remembers having tasted South Korean instant noodles while living in the North.
"When I was serving in the [North Korean] Army, I saw a balloon landing on a mountainside. Out of curiosity, I went there and found ramen," he said.
"We were told not to eat South Korean instant noodles, because the South Koreans had supposedly used toxic ingredients. But I didn’t believe it," he said.2004 accident
South Korean instant noodles entered North Korea on a large scale in the aftermath of the April 2004 Ryongchon railway disaster in North Korea, when a flammable cargo exploded at a railway station, killing or injuring as many as 3,000 people.
South Korean press reports said at the time that most South Korean humanitarian assistance groups that sent emergency supplies in the wake of the explosion included about 420,000 packs of instant noodles in their shipments to the North.
North Korean women who visited South Korea in 2002 and 2003 as cheerleaders at international sporting events hosted by the cities of Pusan and Taegu also told North Koreans about the taste of South Korean instant noodles upon their return to the North.
"Throughout their stay in South Korea, these [North Korean] young women had instant noodles and chicken as a late night snack. They absolutely loved it, and told people in North Korea about it," Lee Nakyung recalled.
Ramen noodles have also become popular in the South Korean-invested Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, and in the Mount Kumgang Resort area.
North Korean defectors continue to enjoy the instant noodles in South Korea, according to Kang Woo Sung.
"Instant noodles are so easy to prepare—even a man can easily do it," he said.
"All it takes after coming back late from school is boiling some water and then mixing the noodle soup, and ... one is all done with dinner for the night."Original reporting in Korean by S.W. Park. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.