(Mizzima’s Feature) – Korean food is all the rage in Asia but one Korean restaurant in Burma’s old capital has raised a few eyebrows amongst those in the know.
While nobody has seen any pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il or his father yet, there is every indication that Koryo Restaurant is Pyongyang’s first tasty foray into Burma, according to a source close to the Burmese government.
There are many Korean restaurants in Rangoon. Now, it would seem, there is one from the North.
There really should be no question mark over who is supporting the Rangoon venture. The name says it all.
“Koryo is the name the North Koreans use for the country (besides Chosun),” Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burma and North Korea told Mizzima in Chiang Mai.
“The airline, for instance, is called Air Koryo and there is a Hotel Koryo in Pyongyang. In the south the name for Korea is Hankuk. So it definitely sounds North Korean.”
Lintner, one of the few experts who has slipped behind the curtain in both countries, is not surprised by the news that Pyongyang cuisine is about to have Burmese people in Rangoon licking their lips.
“The North Korean government, or embassies abroad, run a number of Korean restaurants in the region,” he said, noting that although those in Bangkok and Pattaya are gone, “new ones have sprung up in Kathmandu and Dhaka, in addition to old ones in Vientiane and Vladivostok.”
Is the Koryo Restaurant only going to be selling tasty food including kimchi, Korea’s famous tangy pickled vegetable? Or does it have other objects or objectives not printed on the menu?
The building stands on Sayasan Road, Bahan Township, in Rangoon and is only a few hundred metres from a South Korean restaurant, Dae Wong Gat, a competitor. Enquiries conducted by Mizzima indicate that those involved are “from North Korea,” according to a member of staff on the site, but it is unclear who is running the project. Locals claim the people working on the site are foreign. When Mizzima obtained a translation of the wording in Korean on the signboard, it said, “Pyongyang Chon Ryu Kwan Yangon Branch.”
According to a source, the North Korean embassy began the process of opening the restaurant in September 2010. It rented the building from March 2011 under a five-year rental agreement. The building is currently being finished and 15 workers from North Korea have been employed so far.
The South Korean embassy in Burma was unable to confirm or deny that North Korea was opening a restaurant in Rangoon.
North Korea may be failing miserably conducting business at home or feeding its people, but when it comes to an every-growing list of business outreach programmes in Asia, they are displaying some panache—though it is often unclear whether they are purely pursuing money-making or part of the North Korean intelligence service’s surveillance and other activities.
In a recent article entitled, “North Korea’s creepy crawly capitalism” in Asia Times, Lintner says North Korean capitalism abroad is flourishing but largely under the radar. “Pyongyang has steadily established a string of legitimate and less legitimate front companies across East and Southeast Asia, aimed at earning the cash-strapped government badly needed hard currency. And, by all indications, business is booming.”
Anything fishy about this culinary venture? According to a source close to the government in Naypyitaw, the suggestion that the restaurant is bringing in about 30 workers from abroad indicates they may have the permission of the Burmese government. Thai and Chinese restaurants are unable to ship in hordes of workers. Burmese typically do the jobs.
Naypyitaw easing entry would be no surprise. The North Korean and Burmese governments appear to have a cozy relationship—embattled regimes with negative standing on the international stage. Stories in the media allege missile deals and transfer of nuclear technology.
The workers at this new restaurant are said to include “young ladies in their 20s selected from sincere North Korean families loyal to dictator Kim Jong-il.” They are well-trained not only in dancing and singing but also “for espionage,” according to the source.
If Lintner is right, this fits a pattern. North Korea’s restaurants in Asia always bring in their own staff, mostly young women from Pyongyang.
According to the Naypyitaw source, the North Korean government would run such a restaurant through their embassy, possibly with a local partner to add a gloss of legality. If the pattern is the same as other ventures in Asia, the restaurant would have two important objectives—to be a base for illegal activity, such as smuggling and money laundering, and espionage in the country.
At present, the doors are locked, workmen are renovating, and it is not clear what will be on the menu.
All that is clear at the moment is kimchi will be served. You can’t have a Korean restaurant–whether North or South–without this tasty staple dish.