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In Holland, N. Korea springs a culinary surprise

Associated Press

AMSTERDAM (AP) – The two young waitresses dressed in red-and-blue taffeta dance a birdlike courtship ritual, one sporting a flirtatious grin, while the other snaps her fan open and shut, preening.

It’s not just the entertainment that is unusual here.

Pyongyang Restaurant is western Europe’s first North Korean eatery, an outpost of a culinary empire that has spread across Asia.

The nine North Korean workers, more than 8,000 kilometers (5,200 miles) from their isolated country, proudly serve up dishes the likes of which millions in their hunger-stricken homeland can only dream of: slices of grilled beef, chicken soup with ginseng, scallop and crab stew served in an orange.

The restaurant, launched last month in this famously liberal city, is similar to others named “Pyongyang” that have gone up in cooperation with the North Korean government over the past decade, mainly in Asia but also in the Middle East and eastern Europe.

While challenging perceptions of North Korea, the restaurants raise a tangle of questions about how the world should interact with the country and its reclusive government, accused of human rights abuses and a rogue nuclear weapons program.

The Amsterdam restaurant is listed online in North Korea as a branch of the Beijing-based Pyongyang Haedanghwa chain, which has restaurants in several Chinese cities as well as a popular outlet in the North Korean capital. Other North Korea-linked “Pyongyang” eateries operate outside the auspices of Haedanghwa enterprise.

“Haedanghwa in the Netherlands means the first step of the launch of the corporation into Europe along with the original dietary culture of the Korean nation,” said a recent statement posted on Naenara, North Korea’s state-run Internet portal.

There is no way of knowing whether the Pyongyang government benefits from the Amsterdam restaurant financially, but Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert who has written five books on the country, said the main purpose of such restaurants is to get around U.S.-led economic sanctions and obtain foreign money with no strings attached.

“It’s a way for the North Korean regime to earn foreign currency,” said Noland, of the Peterson Institute in Washington, an international economic policy think tank.

The Amsterdam restaurant’s two Dutch owners, however, profess idealistic goals. They deny funneling money to North Korea and say that if they ever make a profit, they will invest it to benefit North Koreans.

“We want things to get better for the (North Korean) people, regardless of the political system,” said co-owner Remco van Daal.

He stresses that he wants to avoid politics, but politics are everywhere.

Van Daal dresses in black and wears a small lapel pin bearing the image of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea’s ruling communist dynasty. Similar pins are worn by most North Koreans.

The waitresses’ responses to customers’ questions in English sound scripted, or at least coordinated. Several offer an improbable remark about what they like about often-rainy Holland: “the weather.”

One gives her name as So Ji Hye. She is willing to engage briefly in conversation, but sidesteps most questions. What does she miss most about North Korea?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Is she able to save money or send it back to her family?

“I’m sorry, that’s private.”

Food is by definition political when it comes to North Korea: Even with negotiations over the country’s nuclear program stalled, Europe and the U.S. undertook a new round of food aid to the country last year focused on malnourished children and pregnant women.

“I don’t know who would patronize such a restaurant, and I’m surprised the Dutch authorities would allow it,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok.

“Our view, frankly, is that these kinds of restaurants directly benefit a government that is responsible for crimes against humanity: widespread executions, violent punishments, labor camps … the denial of the most fundamental of basic human rights.”

At Pyongyang restaurants in Asia, owners are expected to turn over a large portion of profits to the North Korean government, according to Noland. Van Daal, backing up his denial of paying fees to the North, said the North Korean staff are paid in euros and taxed in the Netherlands. He would not give numbers, but the Dutch minimum wage is $11 an hour and a full nine-course meal for one person costing $100 might yield a tip of about $6.

The seven waitresses and two cooks can and do leave the hotel above the restaurant where they live, Van Daal said, although they always travel in pairs or more. They have access to the Internet and cell phones.

Van Daal said he is surprised that the restaurant, several years in the planning, has become a reality. He said he was told at every turn that it would never be approved, but persistence at both ends paid off

He made several trips to North Korea to pitch the idea as part of a cultural center, with one such visit in 2010 recorded by both North Korean and Western news outlets.

He set up a foundation for North Korea in the Netherlands, brought gifts to leaders in Pyongyang and translated into Dutch a political tract on Kim Il Sung’s philosophy of “juche,” or “self-reliance.”

On the Dutch side, to obtain work permits, Van Daal had to show he had advertised throughout Europe for staff. “It sounds ridiculous in relation to a North Korean restaurant, but that’s what you have to do,” he said.

South Korean sources estimate that some 80 North Korean restaurants in various guises bring in tens of millions of dollars annually to North Korea, all based in countries that, like the Netherlands, with which it has diplomatic relations.

Besides dozens in China, there are at least two in Russia, two in Cambodia, two in Thailand, and one each in Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and Dubai.

The launch of the Amsterdam restaurant fits with a broader picture of modestly improved relations between North Korea and the West, despite regular setbacks over the country’s nuclear ambitions.

The Dutch government referred all questions about the restaurant to the work permit division of its Social Affairs Ministry, which confirmed issuing the nine work permits last year.

Van Daal said Dutch customs officials spent hours combing through the equipment and personal effects his staff brought with them in December, including the many landscape paintings and other decorations that adorn the restaurant’s walls.

Noland assumed they were not potential defectors, saying such workers come from the elite of North Korean society, have families loyal to the ruling party, and have been specially selected and trained for this job.

The restaurants in Asia draw much of their business from South Korean tourists, said Kim Ji-yeon, a researcher at the South Korean government-funded Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. They have been cut off from the north for decades, and the restaurants offer them a chance to mingle with North Koreans and sample their specialties.

Paul Rigter, a Dutchman of Korean ancestry, said the Amsterdam menu appeared to have been adjusted to Dutch tastes and the produce available here. Rigter says the kimchi, or fermented cabbage, a national staple in both Koreas, is less pungent than he expected.

“North Korean cuisine doesn’t differ much, in my view, from South Korean cuisine,” he said, with one notable exception:

“In South Korea a lot more meat gets eaten these days, because in North Korea there is simply not much of it.”


Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)