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Dining in North Korea: A Morally Questionable Experience

I have written before about moral choices when it comes to food. Namely, that I wasn’t sure how I would react if I was offered dog. Well, I wasn’t offered dog, but I was offered the chance to eat inside one of the axis of evil countries. OK, I didn’t actually go to North Korea, I went to South Jakarta (Jalan Gandaria, no. 58) to the closest thing: Pyongyang restaurant “owned” by the North Korean government.

Pyongyang is the name of a restaurant chain across Asia. There are several in China and a co-worker who lived in Cambodia dined in the Phnom Penh franchise a few times. These restaurants are operated by the North Korean government and they provide an inflow of cash to the government in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The money gets laundered into North Korea through a go-between organization named Room 39 — I know, this all sounds sketchy and James Bond-esque. The lovely waitresses, pictured above, all looked alike and they entertain guests by performing song and dance numbers. The rumor (most likely true) is that they are the daughters of politically well-connected families in Pyongyang, so, therefore, they aren’t going to try and escape and defect when they are abroad. Some have run away, one married a Cambodian, and it caused a scandal. They are supposedly not allowed to leave the restaurant and they live on premise. For a great detailed look, check out this Slate piece written by a friend of a friend, here. But again, it is North Korea, so I can’t verify anything that I’ve just told you.

When I heard that there was a branch in Jakarta, curiosity got the best of me. I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union, and today, North Korea is the modern equivalent of a closed off society. I had to know what eating in a North Korean restaurant was like. At the same time, I felt guilty. There is currently a horrific food crisis in North Korea. Meanwhile, the government there is allowing some capitalism in by opening a luxury goods store in the capital, read about that here. So, I pushed aside my moral qualms for a few hours and let myself experience “North Korea.” I can only hope that the money I spent there will be put towards helping feed a starving population. So, how was the food? Well the kimchi was delicious and tangy and we ordered more than one portion. What is it about fermented cabbage? I find myself craving kimchi these days…

I love all of the little appetizers you get at Korean restaurants. They were tasty at Pyongyang. But, overall, I have had better Korean food in Jakarta. The barbecue meat we ordered wasn’t the best quality meat and wasn’t grilled as well as I would have liked.

We ordered some North Korean soju to go with our meal (note the trading company). Soju tastes like watered down vodka. I think this was the first time I have tried soju so I don’t have anything to compare it with. It was alright.

Hey, I know the Korean word for this food and it wasn’t written on the menu. Thanks to my college roommate, Becca, and her mom, we had plenty of mandu, dumplings in our minifridge over the last four years. These pork mandu were delicious and well cooked with just the right amount of crispness.

Up to this point I hadn’t really been able to tell any difference between North Korean and South Korean cuisine. I had read that the cold Pyongyang noodles were a North Korean dish, so we ordered those. They were pretty slimy in consistency and flavorless. Then we realized that we needed to add vinegar and horse radish to the mix. The waitress had placed these condiments on the table so deftly that we didn’t even notice for a few minutes that something new had appeared on the table.

We also didn’t realize that the waitress was going to take scissors to the noodles to make them manageable to eat. Poor Emily struggled for a minute before the scissors appeared:

There were no photos of the dear leader to be found anywhere. And there wasn’t any overt propaganda. Just lovely paintings of how beautiful North Korea is. Not exactly something I would ever hang in my home…

So, I’ve dined in a restaurant owned by a country that the US considers to be evil. The kimchi was delicious and I had great company. Friends invited friends and I met some new people. I was talking to an American couple and guess what, they both graduated from Wesleyan in the early 2000s. It really is a small world. But, as I left the restaurant, I couldn’t help but feel a bit odd. So, that was North Korea…

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