North Korean Food Diplomacy

Pujon Potato Starch Factory

IMAGE: Pujon Potato Starch Factory, from the International Starch Institute.

Over at the Foreign Policy editor’s blog, Joshua Keating notes with surprise that North Korea’s Central News Agency chose not to make much of U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth’s recent visit to Pyongyang. After noting Bosworth’s arrival in a single sentence, reports Keating, the state propaganda engine went on to devote quadruple the coverage to a food-related headline: “Potato Starch Used In Dishes.”

Lurking between stories on a floral basket presented to Kim Jong Il and the Dear Leader‘s recent inspection of a tractor plant, the potato story is a concise but curiously compelling vision of a government-planned, state-controlled food system:

Potato starch produced by the Uljibong J.V. Company is received well in the DPRK.

The product, made by skinning raw potato and powdering and drying it, keeps most of the nutritive substances the raw potato has.

It contains quite a few minerals and vitamins such as B1, B2, B3, B6 and PP. In particular, it has 66.2 milligrams of vitamin C per 100 grams.

It is popular with catering establishments and housewives as it can be used to prepare noodle, rice cake, bread, pancake and so on.

Unfortunately, food is no laughing matter for many people in North Korea, 8.7 million of whom will rely on food aid to supplement their state rations this year.

Nonetheless, the North Korean regime does engage in state-sponsored food diplomacy. Several of its embassies sponsor North Korean restaurants, at which the dinner show includes cultural entertainment and propaganda film screenings. The New York Times recently reviewed a branch of the Pyongyang Haedanghua Raeng Myon restauarant in Beijing, savouring both the kimchi (“more sour and fresh than the South Korean version”) and the secretive atmosphere: “cell phone calls are cut off, documents and notebooks are checked,” and no photography is allowed.

North Korean restaurants

IMAGE: Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant, photographed by Thorsten.

Elsewhere, the Ulan Bator branch is described as “an extremely satisfying and diligent dining experience,” while a tourist in Phnom Penh pronounced himself “still kind of shell-shocked” from his visit to the Pyongyang Restaurant:

The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. [...] The dresses that they wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives. A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a continuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea.

If North Korea’s food diplomacy has met with a mixed response, American dietary incursions into Pyongyang are potentially even less successful. Although “imperialist influences” are banned, North Koreans have recently gained the opportunity to enjoy a hamburger – as long as they don’t actually call it a hamburger. At the Samtaeseong diner, which opened in June, patrons are able to order a “minced beef with bread” for about a pound ($1.70). This price, although roughly the same as its western McDonald’s equivalent, represents half the daily average income in North Korea, which limits its mass appeal.

There is clearly some way to go before North Korea dismantles its nuclear programme, the U.S. drops its “axis of evil” rhetoric,  and the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention is able to take effect. Still, until food diplomacy prevails, we will just have to make do with pure spring water from the DMZ.

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