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Western Food Growing Popular in Hunger-stricken NK

Posted July. 27, 2009 07:26,   


North Korea has opened its first fast food restaurant serving hamburgers and waffles despite a chronic and growingly severe food shortage.

The Chosun Shinbo, the newspaper of a pro-North Korea group of ethnic Koreans in Japan, said Saturday that Samtaesong Fresh Food Restaurant opened early last month in downtown Pyongyang.

North Korea has had no term indicating fast food, but the opening of the restaurant has led to the term “sokseong (fast)” food center, according to the newspaper.

The restaurant is financed by a Singaporean company and serves foods catering to the North Korean palate.

The menu offers diced “minced beef and bread (hamburger),” “baked and frizzled bread (waffle), minced flatfish and bread, vegetables and bread, and a meal of mixed foods including minced beef, bread, potato porridge and kimchi. Beverages include soda and “Kumkang fresh beer.”

Opening at 11 a.m. and closing at 9 p.m., the restaurant has 15 employees, mainly women, who work in cooking and serving.

Prices there are said to be affordable. A hamburger costs 190 won (15 U.S. cents) and a glass of beer 76 won (six cents), cheap given that a kilogram of rice costs 1,900 won (15 dollars) in North Korea.

Despite its affordability, the restaurant is inaccessible by most North Koreans because an admission ticket is needed to enter. Such tickets are being traded on the black market at prices higher than face value.

Unlike South Korea, where downtown streets have been lined with all kinds of restaurants for decades, North Korea began introducing restaurants in big cities from the early 1990s. Except a few renowned restaurants, most offer a menu with the same foods and services since they are state run and endure no competition for customers.

Until the early 1990s, anyone who had a ticket called “ryangpyo,” meaning 200 grams of food, and one North Korean won could eat a meal in a restaurant. No restaurants for the wealthy existed. For North Koreans, restaurants were for those who traveled or were far from home.

When many people began starving to death in the mid-1990s and the communist distribution system collapsed, things began changing. To eke out a living, people started selling food in markets and setting up private restaurants. High-end restraints for those who accumulated wealth through trade also emerged.

Subsequently, the North Korean custom of treating guests at home has changed and the concept of dining out has taken hold.

Since only those with deep pockets can keep eating out, however, such restaurants have become a symbol of the gap between the haves and have nots.

Competition is also rising among restaurants to draw more customers. In rich Pyongyang districts, the number of high-end restaurants has shot up and state organizations have gotten into the act by joining forces with companies not only from China and Singapore but also from South Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has also thrown his support behind the fast food business. As recently as a decade ago, hamburgers and cola were considered food emblematic of capitalism. In the early 2000s, however, Kim ordered the building of a facility to mass produce hamburgers. If the popularity of Western food in the Stalinist country continues, it is only a matter of time before cola finally enters the North.

Separately, an Italian restaurant opened in Pyongyang in March, and a comprehensive food mall on Changkwang Street is expected to open soon after remodeling.

The popularity of South Korean food in the North is also growing. Matdaero Rural Chicken, a South Korean franchise, opened a year ago in the North. A restaurant serving Jeonju bibimbap (spicy mixed rice with vegetables), named after a city in South Korea’s North Jeolla Province, is also under construction at the foot of Mount Taesung near Pyongyang.