In 2003, North Korea released a comedy film called Our Fragrance, which polarized Korean and Western cultures, particularly in regards to food. The film is premised on the importance of defending the Korean tradition from foreign impositions, reflecting North Korea’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. The film uses kimchi as that which symbolizes cultural homogenization, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism by projecting two interrelated points: first, kimchi is an indigenous Korean tradition that needs to be preserved to reify national identity; and second, kimchi signifies revolutionary ideals of defending the country from foreign powers.
Our Fragrance defines state identity and the governing Juche ideology (North Korea’s appropriation of communist thought) through the consumption of cultural products such as food and clothes. The visuality of such cultural products in the film serves to differentiate, disparage, and refute the imposition of Western imperialism in the DPRK. By asserting the nationalist discourse of consuming North Korea’s traditional culture, the film maps out the binary opposition of moral/immoral, Korean/Western, and communism/capitalism for the North Korean audience.
Paradoxically, Our Fragrance blurs the apparent binary oppositions by presenting North Korea’s active engagement with the international community through the proliferation of its cultural goods. While maintaining national identity is the overarching theme of the film, there are also competing visions of cosmopolitanism and cultural exchange that are equally considered to be the revolutionary ideals of North Korea’s current political agenda. In this presentation, I examine the discourse of kimchi in Our Fragrance as that which opens up the possibilities of understanding North Korea’s political culture and the state’s persistent engagement with the international community to legitimate its statehood and perpetuate national division.