Pyongyang in Amsterdam

This article was contributed by Hamel, who is among other things, a connoisseur of Northern Korean cuisine and graphic novels.

If you’re reading this blog you have probably heard by now of the chain of North Korean restaurants throughout Asia.

They have them in Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Hanoi, Siem Reap, Vientiane and Jakarta, among other cities. Their number has been increasing since 2000, and now they have finally hit Europe.

The ladies are all beautiful, from elite Pyongyang families, and are musically skilled. You can find videos of their singing and dancing performances on Youtube and at least one has been likened to a famous South Korean actress. In China the restaurants often also have coffee shops and noraebang (Karaoke rooms) attached. I had never before seen a gayageum playing together with an accordion, and it actually wasn’t that bad – though you could hardly call it traditional Korean music.

Various media outlets have had a crack at a story on these fine dining establishments, including CNN and the NYT. Several articles about restaurants are collected at NKEconWatch.

Well, now they have finally hit Europe! Just last month, a North Korean restaurant opened in Amsterdam. Nine chefs, waitresses and minders arrived at Schiphol in mid-December to set up the place, which opened on the 27th of Jan.

Initially media attention was only in Dutch.  The Korea Times picked it up just over a week later. I imagine the photo used in that article was a promotional one supplied by the restaurant, but gee, it doesn’t look that exciting or cozy.

A maximum of 24 people at any one time can eat there, and a set menu (table d’hote) runs at 79 euro a person, including a floorshow.

There is a key difference between this restaurant and those in Asia. Basically, it has been opened by two Dutchmen (both of them named Remco – though not Korean Studies professor Dr. Remco Breuker) and was apparently self- financed. All the Pyongyang restaurants in Asia are owned and run by North Koreans, and the profits are thought to flow back to the homeland. In this case, only the staff have been flown in (and they had been trained at the NK restaurant in Beijing). They are living in a hotel in Amsterdam.

Here is the website of the place, which hopes to grow into a cultural center, selling North Korean artworks – sadly, not the propaganda art that people in the West actually want to buy.

The restaurant is located in what used to be the Tulip Hotel in an eastern corner of Amsterdam (far from the center). Here is the channel of the new Amsterdam restaurant so you can watch for yourself what a 96 euro per person looks like.

Here is an extract of an interview with one/some of the waitresses who work there:

What is it like to be in the Netherlands? “Very special, everything is different, it’s a very beautiful country, thank you”

You are selected by the Korean government? “Yes, all. We were selected and trained for half a year in the Pyongyang restaurant in Beijing. Then we came here.”

Do you know the stories that are circulating about North Korea? “Of course. That’s why we are here. We are here to show Europeans the other side of country, our beautiful traditions. We are thrilled to be here. You will stay to eat, won’t you?”

Actually, perhaps it was misleading to say North Korean restaurants "finally" reached Europe. There was also a North Korean restaurant in Vienna in the 1980s. This one did not provide a floorshow, however. It was next to the Kumsong Bank (a DPRK outfit) near the Vienna West train station. There was also another restaurant in Vienna run by pro-Pyongyang Japanese-Koreans, but that seems to no longer exist either.