There’s evidence of a vogue in Asia for all things North Korean …
There is no shortage of restaurants in Dhaka, but visitors to the Bangladeshi capital are being treated to a strange new attraction – the latest branch of Pyongyang, which may well qualify as Asia’s strangest restaurant chain.
With outlets in Bangkok, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (Cambodia), Vientiane (Laos) and Pattaya (Thailand), as well as Shanghai, the chain is growing fast. But there’s a twist: it is wholly-owned and run by the North Korean government. This is hospitality Hermit Kingdom-style.
The food apparently isn’t up to much. But the ambience and decor more than make up for it. “The best thing on the menu”, observed a diner at the Dhaka branch “is the myth”. It’s a surreal place. The walls are painted candy pink to match the traditional costumes worn by the waitresses, who’ll happily pick up a guitar and strum you a song at a moment’s notice; the Bee Gees and John Denver are in their repertoire, so too a rousing number from Bizet’s Carmen. There are no political posters to be seen. Instead, a large screen relays stirring scenes of plunging waterfalls, mountains and palatial architecture. Pyongyang doesn’t portray North Korea in what we imagine must be its utilitarian reality, but as a ‘rainbow state of harmony and joy’. This is soft power at its softest.
The location of the restaurants – often situated close to North Korean embassies – hints at other purposes: not least as conduits of valuable hard currency which, judging by the crowds of curious tourists flocking in, is rolling in by the bagful. The restaurants sell a tempting range of goods from the ‘workers paradise’, priced steeply in US dollars. As well as cigarettes, ginseng, tea and souvenir badges, you can snap up North Korea’s answer to Viagra.
Some see the chain, where the cost of dinner can run to $100 a head, as “a North Korean capitalist experiment”. The Cambodian branch, in particular, has emerged as a magnet for South Korean tourists, enthusiastically fraternising with their hosts. “Pyongyang”, observes the New York Times is “where Koreans go to reunify”.
That may be over-egging it a bit. But signs of change are evident in North Korea where, superficially at least, the new leader Kim Jong-un seems keen to put a different stamp on the leadership. He’s been cultivating a more open, western-style image – culminating with the sudden appearance in July of a glamorous songstress wife. Perhaps Pyongyang says more about the future direction of North Korea than we might think.