Magazine | July 30, 2012, Issue

Totalitarian Tasting Menu

North Korean dining in the Netherlands

The Pyongyang Restaurant in Amsterdam, which serves Korean food in a North Korean ambience, is in a neighborhood of the city, a $40–50 taxi ride from the historic center, that might from the architectural point of view be called Little Pyongyang. The difference between the domestic architecture of Communist totalitarianism and that of European social democracy is subtle rather than great, a matter more of the quality of the construction than of the design. While party rallies and martial music disturb the deadness of the one, drug trafficking and the young men’s struggle for control of the streets do the same in the other.

The Pyongyang Restaurant does not rely on passing trade, for it is difficult to find among the nearly featureless blocks, and indeed you could easily spend a few hours looking for it. Nor does it cater to the local unemployed, or proletarians of any description, for it offers two menus, one at $65 and the other at $100, not including drinks. The latter is nine courses, intermitted by karaoke, piano serenades, and dancing performed by the waitresses.

Our driver promised to pick us up later, for no driver would venture here at night, he said, to pick up people unknown to him. We were guided into the restaurant by telephone, and were told that the staff would come to meet us when we were near. In the event, it was not difficult to spot them: three young Korean women, their faces well made up and with determined smiles, dressed in voluminous nylon chiffon dresses of baby blue and pink and lemon yellow, all in cream stiletto shoes, among the grey concrete slabs.

“Welcome to our restaurant,” they chirped in high-pitched English.

They led us through a short corridor to a windowless room. The tables were set as in a normal restaurant, but the walls were covered in pictures. The only other guests of the evening — two of them — were about to leave. I quickly took in that there was not a single picture of either the Great or the Dear Leader, nor was there any political slogan, which for aficionados of things North Korean reduced slightly the authenticity of the place. The pictures were of the kitsch Sino-socialist-realism school, where schoolgirls in white socks and braids lie contemplating the landscape with a smile of eternal fulfilment as peonies flourish abundantly and tigers emerge from the woods. The only picture I saw of the Great Leader was on the lapel badge of the Dutch cofounder and manager of the Pyongyang Restaurant. Of him, more later. (The restaurant is officially a private venture but is run with extensive cooperation  from the North Korean government.)

On one wall was a large, flat screen, relaying scenes of North Korean landscapes and of Pyongyang, city of eternal fireworks display but uncertain electricity supply. There were none of the vast parades of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, including sleep-deprived children, that reduce humans to the level of soldier ants and are laid on to celebrate non-events such as the leader’s birthday. The manager had just enough insight to realize that the sight of such parades might put the average Westerner off his food and make him draw the most obvious inferences about the Democratic People’s Republic.

#page#The food was copious and meticulously prepared. I am not a person of such tender liberal conscience that I cannot enjoy anything until the world be cleansed of injustice and suffering (nothing I have seen has ever put me off my food), yet there was a certain unpleasant irony about being informed that such-and-such a dish was a traditional delicacy of a country where ordinary people are often reduced to foraging for grass and herbs to stave off starvation.

The three waitresses smiled and smiled and smiled, emitted foreshortened peals of laughter, and danced, sang, and played the piano between courses for our entertainment. This had evidently been arranged by someone who knew that humans like to enjoy themselves but had never personally experienced enjoyment and therefore thought it could be planned like a train timetable, abjuring spontaneity as the worst of eventualities. There was an automatism to their performance that, in the context, was wholly authentic.

Yet they were accomplished and intelligent young women. How one wanted to question them, to know about their lives both in Korea and in Holland! I have always been interested in the lives when they are not working of the people who serve me, for example the Bengali waiter in my local Indian restaurant: Where does he live, in what conditions, and what are his joys and sorrows, his hopes and fears? I am too tactful to ask, too fearful of seeming intrusive; how much greater were my inhibitions in the case of these young Korean women!

How were they selected for the extraordinary mission of serving in the first North Korean restaurant in the West? Did they volunteer or were they sent without choice in the matter? How high up in the hierarchy were their families? Who were the hostages left behind against their defecting? Where did they live in Amsterdam, and how did they spend their free time, if any? How were they paid, and did they control their own money? Were they allowed to roam free? How often did they have to report to the North Korean embassy? What did they think of what they had seen? What, indeed, did they think of us, their customers?

Such questions would have caused embarrassment without resulting in illumination, and we refrained from asking them. Our delicacy prevented a confrontation and objectively (to use a Stalinist locution) served the ends of totalitarianism. We pretend to notice nothing, and they pretend to believe that we have noticed nothing. Thus a social virtue — politeness — comes to serve the ends of evil.

At the very least, it seemed clear to me that the location of the restaurant had been chosen for its resemblance to Pyongyang (the nearest possible in a Western country), the unattractiveness of the life in it, and its isolation from the multiple temptations, including those of freedom, of the city center. These advantages more than outweighed the commercial disadvantage: the discouragement of all but the most determined clientele. A North Korean restaurant is not, in any case, a commercial proposition, or intended as such. It is to promote the friendship of peoples, in the old-fashioned Communist sense of that term.

The founder and manager was a Dutchman in his forties who glowed with the satisfaction of the religious convert who has found the Truth. He was a Believer who wanted to persuade his fellow countrymen (and others in the Western world) that there was more to North Korea than bellicose propaganda, the production of nuclear weapons, military parades, and mass starvation: that it was, in fact, some kind of paradise.

#page#After the meal was over, he kindly agreed to show us his cultural center upstairs. The first two rooms were of non-political art, the same kitsch and sentimental pictures as in the restaurant, a kind of tasteless craft rather than art. But then he took us into his inner sanctum, where, he said, there was political art as well as literature. For he conceded that there were political aspects to North Korea, as there were to everywhere else.

Here he showed us his posters of angrily determined North Korean soldiers endlessly smashing imperialist aggression, as well as his collection of photographs, which, he said, came to him through Moscow. Here at last was the goose-stepping, rather than the peony-perpetually-in-bloom, side of the regime: rockets being driven along the broad streets of Pyongyang (the only traffic they ever witness, in fact, apart from parades of hundreds of thousands), the perfect formations of men-automata as far as the eye could see. Again from politeness I did not laugh when he showed me a picture of the tribune of the politburo with Kim Jong Il in the chair: a row of prune-like men, the majority military in Soviet-style caps several sizes too large for them, and weighed down by medals, and not a smile between them, only the visages of men sucking lemons.

“The Kims are only figureheads,” said the true believer. “The army is the real power.” And he pointed to the head of the army.

Then he proudly showed us his Friendship Medal. One day he received a telephone call telling him he had better come to Pyongyang because he was being decorated, so he went. The medal was cheap even by the standards of the junk sold in African markets. We asked him whether it had been presented to him by any of the politburo. “Oh, no,” he said, with the kind of modesty of someone who truly believes in his insignificance by comparison with God.

There was literature for distribution in piles (no prizes for guessing the author). I was tempted by Kim Jong Il’s thoughts on opera — of which, of course, he was a great composer — but in the end I resisted.

On the way back we did not laugh as we had expected. It was tragic: tragic the fate of the young women, tragic the delusion of the Dutchman who found in Pyongyang the meaning of his life.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

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