What do North Koreans make for fun

Food cultureA North Korean restaurant in the heart of South Korea

This song is called "Pangapsumnida", translated: "Nice to meet you." It is the unofficial national anthem of North Korea, a hit song that comes across all over the country. The music fits into this room, which is a mixture of lobby and stairwell. The traditional menu is glued to the window outside, and on the wall here is a caricature of a worker heroically stretching out his hand in the direction of the stairs that will soon lead into the dining room.

It's just weird. We're not in North Korea here. The music plays in full sound from new speakers from Samsung, the largest corporation in South Korea. Outside, behind the door in the parking lot opposite, there are Hyundai and Kia cars - products of the largest car manufacturer in South Korea. And the area here is called Hongdae - a popular nightlife district in Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

What is a bar-restaurant doing here that not only shows North Korean aesthetics, but is also called "Pyeongyang Pub"?

"South Korea has had a trade conflict with Japan since the summer. It is about politics. Relations have become very bad. Since then, Koreans have stopped buying Japanese products, Japanese beer and so on. This shop was an izakaya for many years, which is a Japanese one Pub shape. That always went well, but not since the summer.

Dispute over colonial history

Jang Wookyung, a 47-year-old hospitality entrepreneur, owns four restaurants in Seoul. He had furnished all of them in the Japanese izakaya style. The menu was Japanese and consisted of sushi, yakitori and okonomiyaki. Sake and the Japanese beer brands Asahi and Yebisu were served. Only this political dispute got in the way of his business. Japan and South Korea are at odds over the history of World War II, when South Korea was a Japanese colony and Koreans were made into slave labor, among other things.

In this case, a Korean court sentenced two Japanese corporations to pay compensation more than a year ago. The Japanese side rejects the matter because there was a bilateral agreement decades ago. At that time, Japan was already making payments, so that one sees the whole colonial past in return.

This disagreement turned into a solid bilateral conflict last summer - and South Koreans have been extremely patriotic ever since. That means: no Japanese products are bought. One of the victims was Jang Wookyung.

"When I reopened the restaurant, sales were really bad at first. People took photos and looked at everything. But many were afraid. I was accused of doing propaganda for North Korea. But that's not what I mean. Me I'm a businessman and just needed a new idea. And a North Korea-style restaurant, that's unique. "

Indeed it is. The Pyoengyang Pub, a motto bar à la North Korea in the middle of the political and economic center of South Korea. Communist propaganda pictures of heroes of the working class hang behind chandeliers under the ceiling. Impeccably made up waitresses wear Nordic peasant-style dresses. The menu also follows the North Korean tradition: there are the cold "Pyongyang noodles" and the crispy pancakes that are eaten north of the border.

The restaurant doesn't want to be political

The shop is still half empty on an early Friday evening. Jang Wookyung therefore still has some time to explain the whole thing here.

"I've never been to North Korea. I don't really want to go. This is just a business for me. A friend of mine who is a designer did the set-up. I gave him a completely free hand. We wanted something funny and offer people something completely new. But we're not here for North Korea or something. "

This is what Jang Wookyung's employee said on the phone as soon as he had a journalist on the phone who wanted to come over for a visit: "This place is not political!" Was the answer, unsolicited and rushed in broken English.

The nervousness was understandable. A shop that not only offers North Korean cuisine, but also the country's folklore? That is actually unthinkable in South Korea. The brother states have been at war with one another since 1950. When shooting was stopped in 1953 after millions of casualties on both sides, all that was achieved was a ceasefire that still applies today. Furthermore, behaving loyally to North Korea counts as treason of the country in South Korea. According to the National Security Law, this carries up to seven years in prison.

In the Pyeongyang Pub you walk a fine line. But if you are attentive, you will not be able to overlook a decided stab of satire. Near the cash register above the open kitchen there is a saying: "Anyone who smokes will be shot." On one wall there is a demand in wide letters above high windows: "Work and deliver fresh beer for the people!" Around the corner, a large communist propaganda-style drawing shows a man in a smock and a test tube. Caption: "Researching to make our livers stronger!"

Those who have not yet recognized the satirical could notice something when the beer comes to the table. The North Korean variety that is supposedly on offer here is called Taedonggang. This is the name of the great river that crosses the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

The beer comes from Germany

"But in South Korea it is forbidden to commercialize products from North Korea. That's why I buy German beer and have the label changed. We have developed a design that looks almost exactly like that of the Taedonggang beer. But look: our name is es Taeddonggang, which means that it no longer means "Great River of the East", but "Big Shit River."

The Pyeongyang Pub seems to be running. The later the evening gets, the more the restaurant, which extends over three levels, fills up. One of the visitors is Park Joowon, a 21-year-old student who came with a friend. They drink cocktails and eat the North Korean pancakes.

"I heard about this pub on Instagram and Facebook. It said there is now a North Korea bar in Hongdae. I've never seen anything like this before, I wanted to go there. It's a bit expensive here, the food and that Alcohol. But I still like it. This is new for me. I'm a bit surprised, but I recognize a few things from the television. Sometimes there are reports about North Korea. In the hour that I'm here now "I've already learned so much about the country. I thought that you weren't allowed to drink or smoke there at all, and that you wouldn't have any fun there."

Park Joowon only understands the warning on the wall that one will be shot for smoking after a waitress has pointed out to her that it is probably not that strict in North Korea. The room for misunderstanding apparently remains relatively large.

Victoria Baird, on the other hand, a Russian-American tourist who is here with two friends, immediately understands the fun. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, she emigrated to the United States as a young woman. In this bar you feel like you have been transported back in time.

"When I came in here I thought: Oh my God, it's like in the Soviet Union. The murals here glorify the workers and farmers. Here: factory workers, fishermen, athletes, high technology, the army, military power, over there the farmers harvesting ... I grew up with it. I think it's funny that they make a joke of all the propaganda here. We did it back then. "

Restaurant with permanent exhibition

The north is not simply ridiculed here either. In the middle of the three floors there is a sliding glass door behind which a small showroom is hidden. A note in English and Korean explains that nothing is sold here. After all, it is forbidden in South Korea to commercialize products from enemy territory. But exhibit? You can do that. The owner got them from China.

Postcards from Pyongyang, cookies, apple-flavored candies and the original Taedonggang beer are on the illuminated shelves. In a showcase in the middle are banknotes on which the likeness of the Kim dynasty can be seen. In one corner, a mannequin is dressed in traditional costumes, next to it are handbags from the north.

These are things that almost no one in liberal South Korea gets to see. The censorship in the south goes far, which also leads to a demonization of the north. North Koreans, for example, are sometimes said to have horns on their heads. But even then, if no untruths are spread about the brother state, the image of a barely human society easily emerges.

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Because after almost 70 years of war and repeated missile tests or threats of war, the exchange between North and South is so meager, the media coverage so negative that many people in the south no longer trust those in the north to laugh or dance at all.

It may not have been restaurant owner Jang Wookyung's primary intention to correct this picture. But the absurd propaganda parody in the "Pyeongyang Pub" seems to add a human face to the idea that some South Korean customers had of North Korea. By 7:30 p.m. the pub is more than half full. Not only groups of work colleagues come here for the typical after-work drinking binge. There are also students and foreign tourists.

"A few days ago I passed the shop and saw that it is now made for North Korea. I was sometimes here when it was still Japanese. I find the mystery of North Korea exciting, so I wanted to come here," says the Norwegian Kristin Fagerback, who is currently doing a stay abroad in South Korea to learn the language. Her companion, the Englishman Leon Gluck, is also enthusiastic:

"This place is really cool. Here you can see that you can have fun in North Korea, even if you are poor, it depends on the person and the situation. I'm from London, you sometimes see the saddest people in the world , although they may have a lot more than the people in North Korea. You'll realize that again when you're in this pub. Maybe the people in North Korea laugh a lot more to have fun. "

South Korea's media are watching critically

Of course, the Pyeongyang Pub has long been the talk of the town in Seoul. Is it really allowed to dedicate a restaurant to the enemy in a country that is still in a state of war? A well-known television commentator recently found that the store cannot be understood as a serious show of solidarity with the north. Even so, the Korea Times has called it a "risky business". After all, every year people are sentenced for breaking the law of national security. So the law enforcement officials didn't put up with everything. And wasn't it bad enough when a drawing of workers and farmers on the facade attracts passers-by with the slogan: "Look here, a bar like in North Korea!"

The government is reluctant to make specific statements, it would be better to leave the matter to the courts if there really is a lawsuit. Representatives of the Reunification Ministry of South Korea also prefer to speak in the abstract. Basically, you are looking for an exchange with the north, also for economic reasons. Ministry employee Song Ji-young said at a conference in Seoul recently:

"Our vision of peace includes North Korea. We want to interlink the two countries economically so that both can benefit. A peace economy would be a new growth moment for both economic areas. In order to drive this forward, we hope for the support of Japan, the USA and Southeast Asia. One A peace-based economy is something that South Korea and North Korea cannot achieve alone. The world community must help us. As you know, the international sanctions against North Korea are very harsh, they affect a great many areas. To achieve a peace-based economy, these sanctions must be scaled down. "

Back at the Pyeongyang Pub. No government official has been seen dining at the tables here. But it doesn't seem like the current rapprochement around Moon Jae-in is particularly against this restaurant either. On the other hand: it is precisely for his understanding policy with the north that President Moon is being attacked by conservatives in the country. He is even assumed to be a communist, even if his social and economic policy has little to do with it. That's how heated the debate is in this country, and that's why the Pyeongyang Pub is so interesting.

"The further the time advances on Friday evening, the younger, more international and hip the audience becomes. The Samsung loudspeakers boom chart breakers from the south, then hits from the north. Cool guys in leather jackets and chic women in high heels rock with the Rhythm, take selfies, many people make sure that a communist-looking poster flashes in the background.

Not everything is authentic

Jang Wookyung stopped by to ask if the food was tasty. The beer with the label that says "big shit river", the cold Pyongyang noodles, the pancakes: all excellent. The north of Korea seems to taste milder than the south, which we are actually in right now. But how authentic is it all here?

"A North Korean refugee has been here before and I asked him if this looked like North Korea. He said the chandeliers on the ceiling would only be seen in a very luxurious restaurant, he thinks. He had never seen anything like this in North Korea The meat on our menu would also not be common in North Korea. But he liked the place. Other guests say the same. Even if they leave food, they tell us that they have a lot of fun here. "

And it's not about authenticity anyway. Jang Wookyung is less happy for reasons of international understanding than for business reasons. Its revenues, which plummeted because of South Korea's trade conflict with Japan, are now rising again. He's already thinking about changing the other three pubs, which he continues to run in the Japanese Izakaya style, to North Korean. There is one thing he learned here, in Seoul's Hongdae nightlife district: North Korea can be cool in South Korea.