Comment on Haggard: The North Korean Restaurant Franchise

Stephan Haggard is an endless source of extreme quantities of highly enriched North Korea information. His ‘blog’ posts (which are usually more like mini-journal articles, trenchantly done but lighter and more fluent in style)  at Witness to Transformation place him at the prow of a mighty and miraculously regular enterprise, so it’s only courteous to add data in the form of a comment if you’ve got something worthwhile to share.

On a recent post by Haggard on the question of foreign currency and North Korean restaurants, I shared the following comment:

…There is a lot of movement from place to place (North Korean businesses seem largely allergic to high rents); no sooner have you located a North Korean restaurant than it is demolished or is moved. In other words, one has to be careful in adding up businesses that in fact may be the same business in a new location. Is the “newest” North Korean restaurant/karaoke bar in Yanji a retooled version of the one that used to be in the Luojing Hotel? Beats me. I think they make a hell of a lot more money doing karaoke than serving food. Incidentally, a Budweiser (beer of champions, and imperialists) is about 8 times cheaper at these places than the North Korean beers which are presumably hand-imported, and often bottled (illegally) in used Qingdao bottles. Careful economizing runs parallel to the epicureanism.

Along those lines, this essay by Chris Green deserves more discussion — because it considers the notion of North Korean profit margins outside of the criminal sphere, to which the rest of us are fluttering irresistibly.

Personally (signposting for a tangent…), I think the restaurants need to be considered from the cultural aspect, as this certainly does come into play from the North Korean control point of view. The restaurants are bubbles of North Korea which endure and are sustained precisely upon a direct, if not wholly uncontrolled, exposure of the workers to foreign capitalism, foreigners, and of course South Koreans in Izod shirts. Perhaps if more South Korean youth groups touring China would make stops into such establishments, a few more minds could be changed (or washed, depending on your perspective), even as the Songun melodies blare on…

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