Fast Food in Pyongyang? Not What It Seems

North Korea’s first fast food restaurant has opened. According to Chosun Shinbo, a newspaper published by the Chongryon (the General Association of North Korean Residents in Japan), the ”Samtaesung Soft Drinks Shop” recently opened near the Geumsung Intersection in Pyongyang.

Chosun Shinbo stated that the international partner with the restaurant’s North Korean owner is a waffle store in Singapore which has provided the equipment. The manpower and ingredients are apparently provided by North Korea.

According to Chosun Shinbo, the employees, in preparation for the opening, received education and training on cooking and service know-how from a person dispatched by the Singaporean partner. However, the taste of the food has apparently been tailored to suit the palettes of North Korean citizens.

Since the North Korean language doesn’t allow for English vocabulary, the menu announces “minced beef and bread” instead of “hamburgers” (190 North Korean won, 1.2 euro) and “baked bread” instead of waffles. Then there is “minced fish and bread” and “vegetables and bread” for customers who want a healthier option. One can also order a set menu consisting of beef and bread, potato salad and kimchi. As for beverages, there are various carbonated drinks, as well as Geumgang draft beer (76 won, 0.4 euro).

The restaurant operates from 11 A.M. to 9 P.M. and the 15 employees, mostly females in their 20s, are in charge of cooking and serving. The menu is going to be changed once a month, with “croissants” and “hotdogs” slated for addition.

Chosun Shinbo insisted, “At first glance, the menu and the inner decor are similar to hamburger restaurants in other countries, so media outlets have been reporting it as if Western-style eating habits have seeped into North Korea, but the reality is quite different.”

It also explained that the expression “short-course food” has been coined to describe fast food in North Korean terms, and that a plan is in the works to set up another branch in downtown Pyongyang in the near future.

However, while on the outside it seems as if North Korea has opened a restaurant for the people, that is highly unlikely to be the case. A defector called Park, who has worked in a restaurant in North Korea, pointed out, “To achieve the economical price of this fast-food in North Korea, economies of scale for ingredients would be needed, but this is not realistic in North Korea’s situation. The North Korean authorities have been saying that the restaurant is for North Korean citizens, but in reality it must be for foreigners and officials.”

The prices of the main items on the restaurant menu–“minced beef and bread” and Geumgang Draft Beer– are low against the backdrop of reality in North Korea, being priced at 190 and 76 won respectively. “Artificial meat rice” made with tofu and “dumpling” stuffed with rice, the main street foods in North Korea, are sold for 100~150 won each, so it makes little sense that hamburgers, which contain real meat, are sold for 190 won. Furthermore, in “draft beer stores” in Pyongyang, a glass of beer (1,000 cc) costs more than 800 won with a “beer ration ticket.” Without this, one has to pay up to 2,000 won, making 76 won look very unrealistic.

Park predicted, “At such a low price, the business will mostly cater to foreigners and officials, while for average citizens, only those who bring ‘ration tickets’ distributed by People’s Units will be able to make a purchase.” In other words, the pricing scheme is a propaganda tool for the outside world.

Given North Korea’s system of individuals not being allowed to raise cows, the swift provision of the ingredients is also questionable. In the North, beef is a rare food for which there is no “market price,” while pork has was trading for 4,000 won per kilogram in Pyongyang area markets as of July.