Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Exclusive Report : Western culture sees boom in N. Korea

Isolated North Korea is embracing Western culture more and more with restaurants and cafes popping up in major cities despite the country’s ongoing food woes, a source familiar with the matter said Tuesday.

Establishments serving hamburgers, pasta and pizza have increased markedly over the last decade, with several formed through ventures with foreign firms, despite Pyongyang’s long held aversion to outside influences, the source said.

Among recent examples, Austrian company Helmut Sachers Kaffee helped open a bakery and coffee shop in Kim Il-sung Square. The firm invested in the shop and trained its staff. It is said to serve mostly foreign residents.

That followed the opening last year of a hamburger joint called Samtaeseong with investment from a Singaporean firm. Selling waffles and beer, the establishment has also opened a stand at Kaeson Youth Park in Pyongyang. Several street vendors selling fast-food have also appeared.

Hana Electronics JVC, a joint venture with a European firm has opened an upscale sauna facility and restaurant in the capital city.
Observers said ordinary citizens more than likely have had little access to such restaurants and shops as Pyongyang and other major cities are highly concentrated with North Korea’s elite class ― those that hold high-level government positions.

The United Nations says 66 percent of North Koreans suffer from poor food consumption amid ongoing serious concerns over malnutrition.

Pyongyang, which has called for international help to cope with food shortages, often instructs its people to resist Western influences and instead embrace a philosophy of self-reliance and militarism.

Though the new initiatives reflect efforts made by the foreign firms, they could also be tied to Pyongyang’s ongoing efforts to spruce itself up ahead of next April, when it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its later founder, Kim Il-sung. It has promised its people prosperity by the landmark date.

Fueling doubts that the regime may find it hard to convince its people of such progress, observers said it would be exceedingly difficult for the average North Korean to afford to stop by the Austrian-invested café, where a cup of coffee costs 2 euro.

Such a price was far out of the reach of ordinary citizens, who make around 3,000 North Korean won, or 22 euro a month according to reports.

Some groups with lines into the North say the general populace is growing increasing skeptical of the regime’s push for prosperity, citing a wide divide between a growing middle class able to run businesses and most of the rest of the impoverished country.

In line with the push, the regime has been busy giving the capital city a facelift, including new semi-high-rise apartment complexes featuring 3,000 units in the Mansudae district, complete with cultural amenities and upgraded street lights and signs. A water park that can accommodate 4,000 fun-seekers was said to have opened this summer.

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