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  • 01.03.11

Karaoke! Espionage! Haute Cuisine!: Adventures in the North Korean Government’s Restaurant Chain

Dishes are approved by the Dear Leader but guaranteed not to make you Il. By expanding into Dubai and Amsterdam, the NK government’s eateries are providing an alternative to arms sales in raising foreign capital. Food not bombs, indeed!

Kim Jong Il

A chain of restaurants affiliated with
the North Korean government recently opened a Dubai branch. Visitors
to the Okryu-Gwan restaurant have the rare chance to enjoy
traditional North Korean dishes while putting valuable hard currency
into Pyongyang’s pocket.

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Okryu-Gwan is based
in Pyongyang
and also maintains outlets in China, Nepal, and
Thailand. The Dubai edition, which opened last summer, is
a joint venture between an undisclosed United Arab Emirates-based
partner and several other unnamed shareholders. But according to Abu
Dhabi’s The National
newspaper, the real shots are called by North Korea through an
intermediary drawn from the expatriate Chinese community:

The
Chinese businessman Gavin Tang, who has worked in the Emirates for
more than two decades, has said he also has a stake in the venture.
Still, there’s no question about its management according to the
manager. “Everyone
knows that it is run by the North Korean government,” said that
executive, who identified herself only as Ms Jin. “A group of
people from the foreign ministry direct the restaurant.”

Mr
Tang agreed to act as a local fixer for the business after meeting Ms
Jin at a franchise restaurant in Beijing, where she also worked as a
manager. Though he denied North Korean officials were directing
operations, he said there were “special people” taking care of
them.”

Okryu-Gwan
is also reportedly opening their first European branch in the
Netherlands. The restaurant in the Netherlands will instead be called
Pyongyang and is
scheduled to swing open its doors later this year.

But
the big question for any restaurant is of course: How’s the food? The
Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state news agency, ran
this blurb
on the central Pyongyang restaurant in 1998:

National
dishes are mainly served in it. Those include Pyongyang cold noodle,
cold noodle on shallow round plate, gray mullet soup and boiled rice,
Pyongyang Onban, beef rib soup, sinsollo and green bean pancake. In
particular, Pyongyang cold noodle is popular among the people at home
and abroad. The dish is chiefly made of buckwheat. The thin and tough
noodles with various kinds of mince are served with noodle broth
processed with much care. The noodle broth is made of water boiled
with pheasant, beef and chicken and cooled. It makes people’s mouth
water…Cuisines of other countries are served for foreign tourists…General Secretary Kim Jong Il sent thanks to the employees for their
excellent services on some 50 occasions.”

More pictures
of the food, which look like the North Korean take on
haute cuisine, can be viewed here.

At
these foreign branches, one of the primary draws is entertainment. The
Okryu-Gwan location in Kathmandu, Nepal, is well known for daily
song-and-dance routines
and for North
Korean karaoke parties
, as shown below.

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A
recent NPR visit to the Dubai branch found a surreal scene:

As
the food begins to arrive, a synthesizer strikes up a
theremin-sounding introduction, and soon the waitresses are onstage,
belting out Korean songs and decades-old American pop. […]
Potential staff members are thoroughly vetted for political
reliability, he added, and pressure may be used against family
members to minimize the risk of defection. But as long as the
restaurants meet their monthly revenue quotas, the regime tends not
to interfere.

The
restaurants have also been also tied to the murky world of intelligence and
espionage. A North
Korean man defected to India
through the Kathmandu restaurant.
The man was reportedly the former manager of the Kathmandu Okryu-Gwan
and fled to India with a large amount of cash taken from the
restaurant.

According to media reports, foreign branches of the
restaurant are required to send home at least $30,000 annually in
addition to paying their own expenses. While returns sent by the restaurants back to the mother country remain relatively small, they still play an important role. While North Korea’s primary method of raising foreign capital is weapons sales, it is also generally believed that the North Korean government has a major hand in Japan’s pachinko industry.

Follow the author of this story,
Neal Ungerleider, on
Twitter
.

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