Justin V. Hastings

 

On his book A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

Cover Interview of May 31, 2017

A close-up

North Korean restaurants are tourist attractions in many cities, and are often the closest the average person will ever get to North Koreans. And indeed, they were one of the inspirations for the book. Toward the beginning of my research, I came across a North Korean restaurant in a city in northeastern China. The restaurant itself was a block or two down from a branch of a popular South Korean coffee, waffles, and ice cream chain, indicating that perhaps North Koreans were not as isolated (even from South Koreans) as one would think. The façade of the restaurant was festooned with a giant North Korean flag, and advertised—in Chinese—the fact that it sold dog meat. The North Koreans had clearly established a niche for themselves that Chinese and South Korean restaurants were wary of (publicly) occupying. In its restaurants, North Korea is essentially using its ‘brand’—isolated and exotic—to make money.

If we take a step back, the whole idea of a North Korean restaurant seems a bit odd. What kind of a paranoid Stalinist country runs its own international restaurant chain? The book’s third chapter goes into depth about these restaurants, which are sprinkled throughout Asia, particularly China. Many different North Korean companies have set up a variety of different business arrangements, from wholly owned restaurants to joint ventures with local companies, through to hiring out waitresses to regular Chinese restaurants to attract business. The restaurants themselves are usually decorated with North Korean art, and the waitresses generally present a song and dance routine every evening for customers (with a combination of North Korean patriotic songs and Western rock songs).

The waitresses themselves are daughters of the elite, and often have several years of training in North Korea. They can, within limits, indicate their preferences about where to work. They live near the restaurant under the watchful eye of minders. They are not allowed to interact with local people, are often mistreated, and occasionally attempt to escape, but the fact that many of them sign up seemingly voluntarily suggests that they must make a terrible choice between living and eating in China, or not necessarily having anything to eat in North Korea. The existence of the restaurants is an example of both the entrepreneurial nature of North Koreans, and the difficult choices they must make to survive.