Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

The rise and fall of the Rakwon Chicken Specialty Restaurant (a case study in inter-Korean business)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

UPDATE 4 (2014-2-18): Western tourists are still visiting the restaurant (meaning it has a contract with KITC). The restaurant still has the sign “Rakwon Chicken Specialty Restaurant”, though it is a different color than the original. See tourist video here and here.

UPDATE 3 (2014-2-17): The Hakyoreh updates us on the fate of the inter-Korean chicken restaurant:

In 2005, Choi made his first trip to North Korea to inquire about chicken imports. Soon he had changed plans: he would open his own restaurant there selling South Korean-style chicken. Acquaintances tried to talk him out of it, but he was determined. “I went to Pyongyang and I could see there was money in it,” he recalled. And with economic cooperation between South and North at an all time high, he didn’t see much of a political risk either.

He went back and forth to Pyongyang a few times looking for partners. Finally, in June 2007, he opened up the Rakwon Chicken Restaurant, selling South Korean-style chicken on Puksae Road in the Kaesonmun neighborhood of Moranbong District. His North Korean partner provided the building and staff; Choi was responsible for the interiors, ingredients, recipes, and management system. He reached a deal where he took 70% of profits with a total investment of 500 million won (US$470,000). The opening drew a lot of media attention at the time, with write-ups in the South Korean press and foreign outlets like the Washington Post and Japan’s NHK.

Early on, he did strong business selling at fairly steep prices – the equivalent of US$11.30 for a single bird. His clientele came mainly from the city’s upper class and Chinese visitors. Sales of 100 million won (US$94,000) a year looked to be in sight. “My plan was to open up 100 restaurants in the North,” Choi said.

But in 2008, less than a year after he opened the restaurant, Lee Myung-bak took office as South Korean President. Lee’s administration put a stop to the previous decade’s policies of engagement and cooperation with North Korea, opting for sanctions and containment instead.

“There was a promise between the two sides, and I never thought that would be rejected completely,”Choi said. “Suddenly, that was the reality.”

Bit by bit, exchange ground to a halt. A March 2008 shipment of ingredients through Nampo turned out to be Choi’s last interaction. He had not yet received a single share of revenue.

Then came the announcement of the so-called “May 24 measures” in 2010. Following the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship the preceding March, Seoul had called a complete halt to all exchange and economic cooperation with North Korea.

“All the May 24 measures did was drive it home,” Choi insisted. “Most of the economic cooperation had been choked off long before that.”

For the next four years, Choi wasn’t able to set foot in North Korea. Without his support, the restaurant lost its chicken focus and began selling ordinary cuisine. Choi’s other business began to suffer too.
“I’d put my house and buildings up as collateral to borrow the 500 million won to invest in the North,” he said. “Then, to top it all off, there was the US financial crisis. Things began to go downhill rapidly in South Korea, and my business started to fall apart.”

UPDATE 2 (2009-1-1): The BBC offers an update of the new chicken restaurant:

The governments may not be on the best of terms but a South Korean businessman seems to have found a way to North Koreans’ hearts: their stomachs.

Choi Won-ho, the owner of a fried chicken chain, was told he was doomed to fail when he opened his first branch in the impoverished North last year.

But encouraged by his progress so far, he is already preparing to open another one.

Mr Choi runs a fast food franchise in South Korea with a total of 70 stores.

He opened one more last year – no real challenge you might think – except this extension to his fried chicken empire is in the heart of one of the most secretive and business-unfriendly places on the planet.

But Mr Choi says the citizens of Pyongyang have been queuing in front of his shop which is taking around $1,000 a day.

He is now preparing to meet North Korean officials in January to finalise the approval for a second outlet.

His customers are almost certainly all members of North Korea’s elite, a country in which the World Food Programme says up to 9m people will face urgent food shortages this winter.

Relations between the two Korea’s have been at a low since the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak came to power in the South in February.

North Korea has severed official contacts, stopped all cross-border tourism and restricted entry to a joint industrial zone built with southern money.

But despite the chill, Mr Choi’s fried chicken venture seems to be sizzling.

Read the full story here:
South Korea Chicken Success in NK
BBC
John Sudworth
2009-1-1

UPDATE 1 (2008-11-1): The restaurant is set to open in February 2008. According to Yonhap:

An inter-Korean joint-venture chicken franchise will open its first store in Pyongyang early next month, the head of the franchise’s South Korean partner said Friday.

The store set to open in early February will provide a food delivery service using motorbikes for the first time in the communist country, Choi Won-ho, president of the South Korean company said.

No North Korean restaurants offer food delivery service now, according to defectors from North Korea.

Fried, grilled and steamed chicken dishes as well as draft beer are available for delivery, he said, adding the food will be prepared in the North Korean style.

“I recently received a photo of the store’s interior design from our North Korean business partner, Rakwon General Trading Corporation, along with the offer to open the first store before the 66th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il,” Choi told Yonhap News Agency by phone. “After opening, I will use radio and newspaper ads to promote the business.”

Kim’s birthday, which falls on Feb. 16, is the most festive holiday in the North.

The North Korean company will provide land, some 20 low-cost workers, chicken, and draft beer. The early-stage investment, equipment, cook and spicy chicken will come from the South Korean chicken franchise called “Matdaero Chondak,” Choi said.

The first “Rakwon” chicken restaurant in Pyongyang will have the capacity of seating about 200 people, he added.

The businessman said he will visit North Korea next week to discuss the opening of the store.

“I hope the business will thrive enough so that we can open store No. 10 in Pyongyang,” he added.

Read the full story here:
Inter-Korean joint venture chicken franchise to open first store in Pyongyang
Yonhap
1/11/2008

ORIGINAL POST (2007-11-3): A South Korean entrepreneur is investing in a new fried chicken restaurant in Pyongyang:

According to Reuters:

A South Korean businessman plans to begin a fried chicken delivery service in the North Korean capital, with the first foreign-run restaurant in a country that struggles to feed its own people.

Choi Won-ho, head of a fried chicken franchiser that has about 70 restaurants across South Korea, said Friday he is opening a 50-table restaurant in Pyongyang on Nov. 15. It will also deliver chicken and draft beer to homes.

“I have wanted to be the world’s best chicken brand,” Choi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

“But I thought it makes no sense to conquer the world without sharing food with our compatriots. That’s why I went there first,” he said. “I plan to get into the Chinese market via Pyongyang.”

He laughed off concerns his venture may be too risky in the impoverished and isolated country of 23 million, where the elite citizens of the capital are much better off than others.

“I don’t think that I’m going to lose money at all,” he said.

It will be the first foreign-run restaurant in North Korea, according South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Choi, 48, who has been in the fried chicken business for 15 years, said he hired an ethnic Korean Chinese as the main cook for the Pyongyang outlet and taught him all his cooking know-how. About 20 North Koreans will also work at the restaurant and five scooters will be used for deliveries, he said.

Choi said he invested about 500 million won (US$551,339, ?382,264) in the joint venture with a North Korean trading firm that will take 30 percent of the profits from the business.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world and has relied on foreign food aid to feed the population for more than a decade since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy.

Relations between the two Koreas have improved significantly since their first-ever summit in 2000, spurring a series of exchange projects between the Cold War rivals that fought the 1950-53 Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war.

According to the Joong Ang Ilbo:

South Koreans are making two very different attempts to improve the culinary life of impoverished North Koreans.

First, a South Korean fried chicken franchise will open the only foreign-run restaurant in North Korea, targeting family dining on special occasions.

Second, the labor union of a South Korean conglomerate has built a plant in Pyongyang to provide cheap corn noodles to northerners who suffer from food shortages.

Choi Won-ho, who runs Matdaero, a 70-store fried chicken franchise in the South, said yesterday he would open a restaurant in a joint venture with a North Korean state-run trading company, near the Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang on Nov. 15.

The restaurant will both receive walk-in customers and deliver chicken and draft beer to homes. Such places are common in South Korea, but it will be the first chicken joint of its kind in North Korea.

Choi has invested 500 million won ($551,000) in the restaurant’s cooking facilities, interior decoration and delivery scooters. He will split the profit 70-30 with the North Korean firm.

Choi, 48, who has been a chicken entrepreneur for 15 years, said there should be sufficient demand despite North Korea being one of the world’s poorest countries, because he plans to offer lower prices to locals.

“I will charge about $3 for a whole chicken for North Koreans and at least $12, the same price as in South Korea, for tourists from the South and other countries,” Choi said yesterday by phone. “One whole chicken will be enough for a four-member family, so the price of $3 will not be too burdensome for special occasions.”

The store will hire about 20 North Koreans to take telephone orders, fry the birds and make home deliveries. It will have seating for 50.

Separately, the labor union of Hyundai Motor Company, Korea’s top automaker, said in a statement that it has completed an 1,800-square-meter corn-noodle plant in Pyongyang. The plant can produce two tons of corn noodles a day, it said.

Hyundai Motor’s 44,000 unionized workers agreed in August to help a South Korean humanitarian group build the noodle factory. Workers donated about 12,000 won each, 500 million won in total, for the facility.

“The plant will be a great help to relieve the food problems of North Koreans,” Chang Kyu-ho, a spokesman for the labor union, said. “Corn is a staple food for North Koreans.”

Read the full stories here:
Fried chicken franchise goes North
Joong Ang Daily
Moon So-young
11/3/2007

S Korean businessman to debut fried chicken at first foreign-run restaurant in North Korea
Reuters (Via DPRK Studies)
Jaesoon Chang
11/3/2007

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DPRK Restaurant opens/closes/opens in the Netherlands

Monday, January 27th, 2014

UPDATE 2 (2014-1-27): The North Korean restaurant has re-opened in Amsterdam. According to NK News:

While the Pyongyang Restaurant [See Below] shut down the same year as it opened – allegedly due to a dispute between the Dutch owner Remco Van Daal and its North Korean staff – the Haedongwha staff will now be managed in cooperation with an ethnic Korean manager named John Kim.

Kim, who has lived in the Netherlands for most of his life, also runs a business in Pyongyang exporting sand to Singapore, a source familiar with his background told NK News.

Unlike Haedangwha restaurants in China, which are run directly by the North Korean government, the Netherlands branch is unique in having non-North Korean ownership but a North Korean staff.

You can read more about the restaurant in Het Parool.

Michael Madden tracked down the location.

Here is the official web page of the restaurant.

Learn more about the “other” Haedanghwa here.

UPDATE 1 (2012-9-6): The restaurant has closed. According to the Associated Press:

A North Korean restaurant in Amsterdam staffed by cooks and waitresses from the isolated country has closed its doors.

Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported Thursday that Pyongyang Restaurant’s closure was permanent and stemmed from a disagreement between its Dutch owners and North Korean staff.

The restaurant was an oddity, believed to be the only of its kind in Western Europe, though there are similar restaurants in Asia. Dutch labor authorities say North Koreans can get work visas for Europe under standard rules, but few do.

A woman who answered the phone at the restaurant said the establishment was closed. She couldn’t say for how long because she was not authorized to do so. Its website says it is closed “due to holidays.” Phone calls to the owner Thursday went unanswered.

See more here at North Korea Leadership Watch.

ORIGINAL POST (2012-2-5): According to Yonhap:

A North Korean restaurant has opened in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam in what could be the communist nation’s latest attempt to earn hard currency and foster closer ties with Europe.

The “Pyongyang Restaurant” was launched late last month under a joint venture between North Korea and two Dutch businessmen. While North Korea is known to operate dozens of restaurants across Asia, it is the first time a North Korean restaurant has opened in Europe, with the exception of a canteen that briefly operated near the North Korean Embassy in Vienna in the mid-1990′s, according to a local source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The restaurant is staffed by nine North Koreans, including the director and manager, Han Myong-hee, who worked for 15 years at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing operated by the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Pyongyang Restaurant, which seats 24 people, has its walls covered with pictures of Pyongyang and North Korean nature, while its menu consists solely of a nine-course meal priced at 79 euros (US$104).

Han said there are plans to offer more affordable dishes such as Korean noodles and dumplings after the restaurant’s official opening on Feb. 17.

“After our official launch, we plan to gradually serve a variety of dishes and during lunch hours as well,” she said. The restaurant currently serves only dinner.

The opening ceremony is expected to be attended by the North Korean ambassador to Switzerland, other North Koreans, and key figures from the Netherlands and different European nations, Han said.

Analysts said the restaurant is likely to serve not only as a source of much-needed cash but also as a bridge to Europe for the isolated North.

“North Korea has been putting a lot of effort into normalizing relations with European nations since 2000,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “The opening of North Korea’s first restaurant in Europe can be seen as the North’s attempt to improve ties with the West through exchanges at the civilian level.”

Read the full story here:
N. Korean restaurant opens in Netherlands
Yonhap
2012-2-5

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“Hoeryong Food Street” reopens

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Hoeryong-food-avenue

Pictured Above: The Hoeryong Food Avenue (Google Earth)

According to Radio Free Asia:

A shuttered special food court established by former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a showcase for “high quality dishes at reasonable prices” has reopened and is being allowed to operate independent of the government in a rare move seen by some as reflecting economic reforms.

The center in Hoeryong city in North Hamgyong province bordering China was closed several months after its opening in November 2010 because the management faced financial problems as it could not meet production costs based on food sold to the public at prices dictated by the authorities, sources said.

North Hamgyong authorities recently allowed the Hoeryong Special Food Court to reopen and operate on an “autonomous” basis under new economic management methods introduced last year by Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father’s death in December 2011, the sources told RFA’s Korean Service.

“In order to meet the demands of the New Economic Management System, [the ruling] Workers Party provincial offices allowed the restaurant owners at Hoeryong Special Food Court to operate on an autonomous management basis,” one source in North Hamgyeong province said.

But some observers said the authorities had no choice but to allow the food center to set prices on its own to keep the operations alive, adding that any reform excuse was just an eyewash.

North Korea raced to build the food court after Kim Jong Il proposed it during a visit to his mother’s home town in 2009. He directed government funding of U.S. $800,000 for the project, which was completed in November 2010.

When he inspected the food court a month later, he ordered that it serve people with “high quality dishes at reasonable prices,” asking it to follow in the footsteps of another food outlet, Okryu Restaurant, in Pyongyang.

Operating cost

The source in North Hamgyong province said that the Hoeryong Special Food Court tried to adjust its prices to keep in tandem with those of Okryu Restaurant but could not cope with operating costs.

“During the initial months of operations, the North Korean authorities [subsidized prices] but soon after, the restaurants lost support from the government, thus it went out of business,” another source in the province said.

Even though the authorities did not provide support, they continued to regulate the food prices to make them 75 percent cheaper than those of regular restaurants,” the source said. “Therefore, the owners were suffering from financial difficulties.”

Some sources complain that under the new management of the Hoeryong Special Food Court, food prices have shot up rapidly. In addition, food that is not on the menu is served.

For instance, a seafood specialty restaurant serves steak while a steak house offers noodles, one source complained.

“Before at Hoeryong restaurant, cold noodles were 1,000 North Korean won (about 17 cents), and one bottle of Korean distilled spirits was 800 won (about 10 cents), but after the owners got authority to manage independently, the price of cold noodles went up to 4,000 won (about 68 cents) and one bottle of Korean distilled spirits up to 2,000 won (about 34 cents).

Read the full story here:
Special North Korean Food Court Allowed to Operate Independently
Radio Free Asia
Sung Hui Moon
2013-8-16

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Some new retail developments in Pyongyang

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Instagram is no longer an option for regular tourists to the DPRK, but expats and regular visitors are still allowed access to the service. So Koryo Tours has used mobile access to photograph some recent changes in Pyongyang. I thought I would post a couple of their interesting images below and match them with satellite imagery to give a little more perspective.

Taedonggang Bar No. 3 (대동강제3술집):

Taedong-gang-bar-no-3

Renovation on this bar began sometime after Feb 2012. The interior (pics by Koryo Tours) looks like any of the bars in Dupont Circle:

Taedonggang-bar-3-1 Taedonggang-bar-3-2

According to Koryo Tours, beer costs 1.5 Euros (per pint/half litre). There are seven taps along the bar. I assume they serve various brands of Taedonggang Beer.

Koryo Tours also posted this image of a new shopping center under construction in downtown Pyongyang:

mansudae-shopping-center-construction

Plastered to the wall is a map of what the site will look like when construction is completed, however, it is too small to make out with any specificity with this image.  Currently we do not know any details about this facility (or even its proper name), but hopefully it will appear in the official North Korean media before too long. Here is the location of the new facility:

New-park-mansudae

The construction site sits on the former star-shaped fountain of the Mansudae Fountain Park….between the Mansudae Assembly Hall (Supreme People’s Assembly), Pyongyang Student’s and Children’s Palace, Mansudae Art Theater, and new Mansudae Street housing.

UPDATE: In this post I initially misidentified the location of the construction site.  I have fixed it now.  Also, someone has informed me that this lot will not be a shopping center but rather another skate park like we have seen in other parts of Pyongyang.

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Hoeryong: New Chinese tourist destination

Monday, October 15th, 2012

 

Pictured Above (Google Earth): Two Google Earth satellite images of Hoeryong (L: 2002-4-27, R: 2008-12-25) which show the construction of residential apartments buildings as well as the town’s new main market.

Hoeryong is a town in North Hamgyong Province that lies across the Tumen (Tuman) River from China.  According to North Korean political narratives it is also the childhood home of Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk.  It has been the the site of a large construction boom in the last five years, and now, according to the Daily NK, Chinese tourists are being brought in on very limited itineraries. According to the article:

The Hoiryeong source explained, “North Hamkyung Province ‘shock troops’ and military unit construction teams have been here for three years on Kim Jong Il’s orders for the construction, and now it is finished.” Local households were asked to contribute 12,000 North Korean Won each to the construction effort, he added.

Hoiryeong used to have few buildings with five floors, but now it has a considerable number of new four and five floor apartment buildings built around the center of the city, as well as a number of newly built commercial facilities. Buildings in the downtown core have also been spruced up with external lighting, a project that began last April.

There are a number of new restaurants in the area. One, ‘Hoiryeonggwan’, has been decorated in the style of Pyongyang’s famous ‘Okryugwan’, something that Kim Jong Il is said to have ordered in December 2010 when he visited the construction site. Elsewhere, restaurants serving spicy marinated beef, duck, dog and Chinese food have also opened their doors.

However, these restaurants only currently open on the weekend or when Chinese tour groups make an advanced reservation, according to the source, who revealed that local people regard the construction effort more as an attempt to generate tourist revenue than to make it a real ‘model city’, as the official propaganda claims.

“Chinese tourists come, then they visit the statue of Kim Jong Suk and the place where she grew up, and then they are taken to one or other of the restaurants,” the source said. “They drink and make merry then go, all without visiting any scenic spots; thus, the authorities make money.”

As with other tourist operations, it is possible that this small step will lead to a softening of restrictive tourism regulations and potentially the arrival of Western tourists.  But don’t hold your breath!  Chinese tourists have been visiting Sinuiju on a regular basis, but westerners are generally still prohibited from touring the city

Additional Information: 

1. On the opening of Hoeryong’s “Food Avenue”

2. Succession not popular in Hoeryong

Read the full story here:
Model City or Tourist Trap: Hoiryeong Sparkles
Daily NK
Choi Song Min
2012-10-15

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Phyongsong restaurant street opens

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

Phyongsong  restaurant street: (L) via Google Earth (R) via Rodong Sinmun

According to KCNA:

New Street of Restaurants Built in S. Phyongan Province

Pyongyang, April 24 (KCNA) — A street of restaurants was newly built in the Jungdok area in Phyongsong City, South Phyongan Province of the DPRK.

There include houses serving casserole, noodle, tangogi soup and entrails soup. A meat shop was also built there, making it possible to improve the people’s diet.

The street is decorated with peculiar display of colorful light.

The restaurant street was featured on the evening news on April 16.

There are at least two other “Restaurant Streets” in the DPRK: Changwang Street in Pyongyang and Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province.

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Korea Pyongyang Haedanghwa Foodstuff Company

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

 

Pictured above: (L) The location of the new Haedonghwa Center under construction in Pyongyang (Google Earth), and (R) a representation of the building’s exterior

The Korea Pyongyang Haedanghwa Foodstuff Company (조선평양해당화식품회사는)  has launched a new web page  on the Naenara portal providing content in English, Korean, and Chinese.

This new web site hosts pages of information not just on the company, its subsidiaries, its employees, and its products, but also on Korean food, culture and health. Among the more interesting claims made on the page:

Our service workers come from normal families, and they are not ones grown in the special environment or conditions.

The web page also provides addresses and maps of the subsidiary restaurants and factories in China and the DPRK.

Using information from the web page I was able to locate the position of the Haedanghwa Center (pictured at the top of this post).  It is obviously still under construction.  The lot on which the center is being built has been empty for the last dozen years and lies directly across the Taedong River from the new construction on Mansudae Street.

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New DPRK restaurant opens in Dandong

Friday, February 17th, 2012

According to the Daily NK:

The largest of a collection of overseas restaurants run by the North Korean authorities,‘Pyongyang Koryogwan’ opened for business in Dandong, China on Thursday. An opening ceremony was held in front of the restaurant, which is located at the entrance to Dandong’s development zone.

The ribbon-cutting, which lasted for 30 minutes beginning at 9:30AM, included North Korean and local Chinese government officials, the restaurant management team and more than 50 female staff members, over 100 people in total. Staff must have been freezing after spending the whole time in Korean traditional dress despite sub-zero temperatures.

The restaurant is staffed by more than 200 workers from North Korea, 120 of whom are general staff, with the remainder working in the kitchens or on administrative tasks. The menu is mostly a collection of different sets, with the cheapest item being cold noodles at around USD$4.75.

Read the full story here:
Dandong Opening for New NK Restaurant
Daily NK
Choi Cheong Ho
2012-02-17

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Viennese Coffee now available in Pyongyang

Monday, February 13th, 2012

UPDATE 1 (2012-2-13): Thanks Dr. Seliger we now have some photos of the interior of the newly opened Viennese Coffee Restaurant:

And if you don’t feel like coffee, they have more “traditional” drinks on offer:

The sign on the front door reads “Helmut Sachers Kaffee,” but the menu shows another name: Ryongwang Coffee Shop (련광). Perhaps this is the name of the Korean Join-Venture company, but I cannot find any additional information on it.

A reader notes the following:

Helmut Sacher is an Austrian coffee roaster (web page here). It is probably that Ryon’gwang buys beans from Sacher, and/or Sacher owns part of the joint company.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-12-4):

Pictured above (Google Maps): Korean Central History Museum on Kim Il-sung Square–site of the new coffee house.

According to a German reader:

A report published [2011-11-24] in the German Daily “Frankfurter Rundschau” reports on the opening of a “Viennese Coffe House” right on Kim Il Sung Square inside the Museum of Korean History (the one wih the “trumpet soldier”).

In brief: Austrian enterpreneur Helmut Sachers has opened this new Vienna style cofee house in October after training Korean service- and bakery staff. It says that it mainly serves the foreign community in Pyongyang, but alo an increasing number of Koreans appear to be able to pay EUR 2, the equivalent of 5000 Won, for a cup of cappucino.

Then reference is made to two older pizza-places and a a Swiss coffe house …. and various duty free shops serving the international community and wealthy North Koreans… which is contrasted with the children and young soldiers exercising on Kim Il Sung Square, who show indications of malnurishment.

You can read a PDF of the German article here. If a reader has the ability and inclination to provide an English-language copy of this article, I would appreciate it.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mr. Knoll I have a full English translation of the article:

Whipped Cream in Pyongyang

The heart of the North Korean capital Pyongyang now boasts a Viennese coffee house – a sign that the isolation of the country is showing cracks.

By Bernhard Bartsch

A cappuccino is not political, in most places in the world. But the milk foam coffee now being served on Pyongyang´s Kim Il Sung Square has an unmistakably political flavor – and some customers think that´s why it tastes so good. Right next to the parade ground in the heart of the North Korean capital, a Viennese café has opened its doors in late October – a sign the isolation of the arch-communist regime is slowly showing cracks.

The Austrian operator could hardly have asked for a more iconic building: the Museum of Korean History, a Stalinist representative structure, on its roof, a 10 m (30 ft) tall soldier is sounding the charge. Inside, you get a crash course in the history of the Korean revolution, and you´ll be served “Viennese coffee with whipped cream”, but only after passing through a door inconspicuously marked “café” in Korean. Only then the yellow coffeepot-shaped emblem marked “Helmut Sachers Kaffee” becomes visible.

“We have thirty to fourty customers per day” the young waitress says. “Most of them are diplomats or other foreigners living here”. She wears a black pantsuit, and like most North Koreans, she is rather tight-lipped when talking to foreigners. A couple sitting at one of the eleven tables is examining the room, a peculiar mix of Austrian gemuetlichkeit and North Korean drabness. Two fans with gaudily-colored lamps are hanging from the ceiling, there´s wood paneling to half height, pink blinds cover the windows. A large flat screen TV is showing Austrian scenery, waltz is being played as background music.

Payment in hard currency

Expensive coffeemakers can be seen behind the bar, a vitrine shows a variety of cakes: apple tart, cherry streusel, poppyseed-walnut-vanilla. They won´t win any prizes in Vienna, they might in Pyongyang, though. The coffee, the dishes, even the sugar packs are imported from Austria. A cappuccino is two euros, you pay in hard currency. The Koreans prefer euros, Chinese yuan, even US dollars, over their own currency. Two euros are worth about 5,000 Korean won on the black market. That´s about a month´s salary for the average North Korean, not counting food and clothing rations.

The man the café is named after is living in Oeynhausen, near Vienna. “We seem to have a monopoly on exotic export markets” explains Helmut Sachers, owner of a long-standing family-owned coffee-roasting establishment, now doing business in 25 countries. “There´s a Café Sachers in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, too”. The cafés, however, are not operated by Sachers himself, but by importers. The one in Pyongyang was the brainchild of Vienna entrepreneur Helmut Brammen. “In 2009 he told me he´s doing business in very unusual destinations”, Sachers says. The negotiations went on for two years, before Sachers and Brammen flew to Pyongyang in March, accompanied by an Austrian baker to train staff. They met very eager men and women, Sachers says. The North Koreans soaked up Austrian coffee culture like a sponge.
The fact that a Viennese coffee house can open its doors in Pyongyang shows that behind the rigid façade things are in a state of flux, a European diplomat says. “Ordinary North Koreans won´t come here, of course, but the elites know what life is like outside the country, and they want a part of it to enjoy at home.

Communist Pizza

The Viennese café is not the first international establishment in the city. A member of the Italian Communist Party opened a pizzeria in 2009, the second in Pyongyang, but the first that is partly owned by foreigners. Adra, an aid organization run by Swiss Adventists, opened a Swiss café a few years ago, serving cheese fondue to North Koreans. There are also several stores selling exclusive imported goods. At the “Pyongyang Shop”, where the clientele consists of embassy staff and members of international aid groups, Italian pasta, German jam, Swiss chocolate, and a large selection of wine and whisky are available.
“Those with money can buy almost anything they want in North Korea” the diplomat says. “It is remarkable that more and more customers are North Koreans.” Despite the egalitarian rhetoric in the Communist country, the real-life wealth disparities are much more blatant than in capitalist countries.

The scene outside the Viennese café on Kim Il Sung Square is no exception. Schoolchildren are rehearsing in the cold for the celebrations planned for April 2012, the 100th birthday of the country´s founder. A gigantic mass gymnastics show involving hundreds of thousands of participants is supposed to strengthen unity among the Korean people. By command, children turn cartwheels and do flic-flacs, a student band plays military marches. On the other side of the street, an army unit doing construction work has pitched its tents. Clothing has been left to dry on bushes, there are lines of cabbage leaves to be pickled by the unit´s chef, to make kimchi, the national dish.

Almost all of the young soldiers are stunted – a result of the famine in the 1990s that killed millions of North Koreans and left many survivors with permanent health problems. “The food situation is still very bad, but a catastrophe as in those days seems unimaginable today”, says a Western aid worker, who is almost a regular at Helmut Sachers`s. “The country is opening up, and this is irreversible.

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Pyongyang Restaurant in Vientiane

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Since the New York Times just published an interesting account of the Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap, I thought I would write a quick post about my recent trip to the North Korean Restaurant in Vientiane, Laos (평양식당)–my first North Korean restaurant experience outside of the DPRK.

The restaurant is located just a couple of blocks from one of Vientiane’s most popular landmarks, Wat Pha That Luang:

 

I arrived at the restaurant on December 28, 2011, the date of Kim Jong-il’s funeral.  I was eager to see if the restaurant would be doing anything special to mark the occasion…and they did: they were closed for the week.  A sign on the door read in English and Lao something close to “Apologies, but we are closed for five days”.

 

As I stood at the front door reading the “closed” sign, one of the waitresses walked out and offered to serve me a drink in the adjacent outdoor seating area (where the grills are located). I accepted.

In what I believe was perfect Korean (sarcasm here), I asked if they served Taedonggang Beer.  But they only served “Beer Lao” (Which is just about the only beer you can get in the country—fortunately it is a tasty one). As I enjoyed my drink, I asked the waitress if the restaurant was closed because of the General’s death, and she made a sad face and nodded her head. So I finished my drink, paid, and continued on with my vacation.

On January 9, 2012, I returned to the restaurant for a proper meal. When I walked into the restaurant I felt like I was back in the DPRK. The decorations and smell came rushing back to memory.

 

 

 

There were no overt signs of propaganda in the restaurant—likely because the bulk of the customers are South Koreans.  The only subtle symbol that could be construed as propaganda would be the pictures of Mt. Paektu.  These, however, would likely be interpreted as just a symbol of Korea to the South Korean patrons. Mt. Paekdu was featured outside on a big sign posted to the front of the building and inside on a smaller painting…right next to the restaurant’s Christmas tree. The wall decoration and paintings primarily featured pictures of Korean landscapes, crashing waves, women in hanboks and of course Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Mona Lisa.

Surprisingly the menu featured several Tangogi (“Sweet” Dog meat) dishes. It was surprising to me because the Laotians  do not eat dog. But they probably do not eat here much either if only because of the prices. I ordered a Tofu and kimchi dish as a starter and topped it off with some Pyongyang cold noodles and Ryongthongsul (령통술) Soju (from Kaesong).

 

Of course there was dancing and karaoke as well:

 

The waitress/performers opened with Arirang, but then sang a couple of songs that the Chinese and South Koreans seemed to know.  I was also able to recognize “Pangap Sunmida” and “Whiperan”.  I requested a song but they just laughed and said no. I guess my tastes are out of date–even in North Korea.

Eventually I was invited to sing a karaoke song as well.  In tribute to Shane Smith, I thought about singing the Sex Piltols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, but I was just too tired and not interested in making a scene.

Before I left, I asked the waitresses where they went to university. They attended the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance (평양음악무용대학)–which was rencetly refurbished:

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:
1. I have marked many of the DPRK’s restaurants on Google Earth, but not all of them. If you visit one, or know where one is, please let me know.

2. I have posted many articles on the DPRK’s domestic, joint venture,  and international restaurants.  You can read them here.

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