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‘Tofu pizzas for the people’

While political elites enjoy chef-made Italian pizza in the only pizza restaurant in North Korea, citizens of Pyongyang are learning through a DVD how to make pizza with tofu instead of cheese.

London-based designer Kim Hwang is the man behind the tofu pizza DVD. He decided to teach North Koreans how to make pizza when he found out about the hypocrisy of the pizzeria that opened in Pyongyang during his study at the Royal College of Arts.

He asked his North Korean defector friends about the pizza joint, but no one knew about it since only Kim Jong-il and his political elites are allowed in the restaurant. Kim felt it hypocritical for Kim Jong-il to force North Korean citizens to maintain their cultural identity while he and his party cadres indulged in Western culture and cuisine.

Kim decided to give North Koreans freedom to eat pizza.

At first, Kim filmed himself making pizza in his kitchen and burned 20 DVDs of the video. He then went to Dandong, China, to have a smuggler carry the DVDs to black market in Pyongyang. One month later, the smuggler came back with a picture of someone holding a piece of pizza.

Kim did not believe it at first. “I was very suspicious at first. ‘Is this real? Did he just take the picture?’ so I asked around to my North Korean defector friends.” They confirmed that given the layout of the kitchen, the picture seemed to have been taken in Pyongyang by a North Korean. After getting the feedback, Kim felt confident enough to take the project one step further. 
A scene from “Pizzas for the People.”
A scene from “Pizzas for the People.”

In early 2010, he came to Seoul to start working on “The Star Pizza Project.” He decided to make the new films look like they were produced in North Korea. Everything from South Korean actors’ accents, make-up and hair, clothes, to all the props were supervised by North Korean defectors. “I wanted to make it look like a young trendy couple living next door in Pyongyang filmed the video by themselves and uploaded it to Youtube, which is also prohibited in North Korea,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

The project consists of a series of short films ― Kim has produced four so far. The films are designed to show things that ordinary North Koreans could have never imagined before; how to make pizza, how to pack for international travel, how to enjoy K-pop and become trend-leaders, and how to celebrate Christmas. Through his work, his audiences in Pyongyang get to see what the upper class is enjoying while they suffer every day. “And it may make them wonder, ‘how come they get to enjoy all that? Why them, not me?’”

After the Star Pizza Project was distributed in Pyongyang, Kim received more feedback from his viewers. So far, he has received more pictures of unidentifiable people making or holding pizza, a thank you note, and a video of a woman holding his DVD, and a man playing North Korean pop music with an accordion. However, he has not heard any more since the Yeonpyeong Island incident.

His work may be well intended, but he cannot avoid criticism. Some people criticize it for being political. Kim argues that his work is not propaganda; it is a way of communication through art. Kim also accepts criticism that his work will not be accepted by all North Koreans. Only the Pyongyang middle class, who are wealthy and mentally and physically healthy enough to think about a better future and better life, are likely to take his work as intended.

Kim plans to continue to work on the Star Pizza Project and produce more episodes that can encompass bigger audiences to help citizens of the two Koreas communicate. “I want to keep my project light and simple. I do not want it to turn into some kind of huge propaganda. This is art, not political propaganda.”

Last year, Kim showed the Star Pizza Project in England, Belgium, Egypt, and South Africa. Kim has worked on expanding his project into a performance. The result, “Pizzas for the People,” will consist of the four previously produced episodes, a documentary of the distribution of the DVD, and new episodes in the form of a play. “Pizzas for the People” which premiered in Korea at Festival Bo:m on Sunday at Sogang University will be screened again on April 11.

By Joo Hye-mi (hyemijoo@gmail.com)
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