North Korean Cuisine

Posted: June 6, 2011 in International
Tags: ,

There’s a good article in The Atlantic about the proliferation of North Korean state-run restaurants popping up in East Asia. Here’s an excerpt:

Among the city’s growing cohort of Korean restaurants, Pyongyang Café has an unusual claim to fame. It is run by the North Korean government, part of a far-flung chain of restaurants that funnels much-needed foreign exchange to the ailing regime in Pyongyang. Andrey Kalachinsky, a veteran journalist and local analyst, said that in the Soviet era, when Vladivostok was a closed military city, the Pyongyang Café was the only foreign eatery in town — a symbol of the political and economic ties between the Soviet Union and Marshal Kim Il-Sung’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

At the Vladivostok restaurant, there is little to suggest any connection with the regime just 428 miles distant. No pictures of the Kim Il-Sung grace the walls, no slogans stamped out in shrill red Korean script. Instead, the décor excels in a sort of kitschy chinoiserie: the walls of one room are covered with naturalistic motifs — golden autumn leaves and towering cliffs — complete with a fake tree that “emerges” from the painted-on scene. Overlooking my booth was a framed poster of a woman looking out coyly from behind a large fan, the Chinese character for “double happiness” inscribed on every second blade.

The whole thing is worth a read, but I can tell you the description I quoted in the previous graphs is accurate. I went to one of these restaurants in Dandong, China back in 2007. We had a private room with a karaoke machine and a view of on the Yalu River. We had waitresses who brought our food and they serenaded us with a North Korean song. Unfortunately, none of the people in my group spoke Korean so we had no idea what the song was about – whether it was a WPK song or something else entirely.

In a bit of cultural diplomacy, we decided to reciprocate and sing a song for them. While deciding which song to pick from the karaoke machine, I looked out the window and saw the Yalu River Bridge, which connects China to North Korea. The bridges were repeatedly bombed by the United States during the Korean War, and one of them – now dubbed the Broken Bridge – was left intact in its bombed out state, and remains so to this day. In that moment, I suggested – with a completely straight face – that we sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Much to my surprise, two vocally talented members of my group actually did it. I don’t think the waitresses got the joke, though.

Here are a few other details I recall from that trip that weren’t mentioned in the Atlantic article. Our guide told us that the restaurant staff were believed to be the children of high-level party officials in Pyongyang. They undergo extensive job training in Pyongyang – including waiting tables and Mandarin proficiency – before being sent over to mainland China to work at a restaurant. The other detail he told us was the rumored existence of a collective punishment policy to deter defections. If one waiter or waitress defects while in China, the other members of his or her training class are recalled back to North Korea, presumably to be punishment. While a job waiting tables in the United States isn’t considered that big of a deal, for the waiters and waitresses working at these restaurants our guide told us, it is a big deal because they are among the elite few chosen to represent their country abroad.

  1. Matt Barker says:

    I lived in Dandong from ’99-’00

    While I never visited a restaurant by that name, I remember many of those waterfront restaurants along the Yalu River having N Korean employees. I’m pretty sure they were refugees who had escaped across the Yalu Jiang. I hope you took the boat ride on the Yalu also, where you can come with 10 yards or so from N Korean soil…. I was half worried about getting picked off by a N Korean sniper!

    Great read, brings back many memories from my time in Dandong.


    • David says:

      There were so many different North Korean restaurants on that little strip of waterfront where I went that day, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them – or other North Korean restaurants in China – employed defectors. I’m just repeating what I was told.

      I did take a boat ride on the Yalu and on a smaller nearby tributary where the boat came within a few yards of North Korean shores. It was a fantastic trip and I’d gladly go again. Thanks for the feedback

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