“It has nothing to do with politics,” insisted owner Remco van Daal as he welcomed patrons to Pyongyang, Europe’s first North Korean restaurant according to its owners.
Taking its name from the isolated Stalinist capital, the eatery aims to offer customers a different glimpse on a regime otherwise cloaked in secrecy.
The evening – which includes a sumptuous meal and floor show – starts at the door of an unassuming, typical Dutch brick building in a quiet suburb on Amsterdam’s outskirts. Dressed in a traditional yellow bell-shaped robe and armed with a shy smile, hostess Miss So welcomes patrons.
“You can think what you want about North Korea,” said Van Daal of the regime whose tension with the US, Japan and Europe, notably over its nuclear and missile programmes, was fanned this week when North Korea announced it would launch a long-range rocket next month to put a satellite into orbit.
“But we want to help patrons discover the people and the country. It has nothing to do with politics,” he told AFP.
Outside, the name “Pyongyang” is painted on a modest signboard decorated with a floral design.
Inside, depictions of fearless North Korean hunters and soldiers are interspersed with portraits of naive young girls, all glorifying the regime of Kim Jong-Un. A karaoke machine stands against one wall, waiting for the fun to start.
Amsterdam’s Pyongyang bears the same name as a similar chain of restaurants set up in Asia, which countless media reports have linked to the North Korean regime and activities including money-laundering.
Van Daal, however, said “this is a personal initiative and has nothing to do with the regime.” The money to finance the eatery, he said, came from funds supplied by his partner Remco Hellingman, owner of a neighbouring hotel which houses the restaurant’s nine employees, all North Korean.
After serving customers the first four of a nine-course menu which included roasted oysters – and came to a total of 79 euros per person ($104) – Miss So and two other hostesses took up microphones to start the entertainment.
The trio broke into a hymn to Mount Kumgang, the diamond mountain and one of North Korea’s national symbols, as the lyrics paraded across a nearby television screen.
“All we want is a window into a country that’s largely unknown,” said Van Daal, cradling a cup of North Korean green tea and sporting a pin of the late leader Kim Jong-Il on his jacket.
“We had an opportunity to travel to North Korea and since then we have always tried to learn things about the country no-one else knew,” said the Dutchman, who used to work at a printing firm.
In 2009, he set up Foundation DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea), which he said aimed at bringing Dutch and North Koreans together.
The restaurant’s staff were selected by the North Korean government and trained by the Pyongyang Restaurant in Beijing. They arrived in the Netherlands in December with their luggage and 72 kilogrammes (160 pounds) of paintings, books and kitchenware.
The four waitresses, three cooks and a translator answer to Han Myong Hui, a forty-something women dressed in black pants and a sweater who oversees the kitchen, keeps tabs on the cash flow and a general eye on her staff.
Van Daal baulked at suggestions the establishment may be a propaganda tool for North Korea, an impoverished state with serious food shortages.
North Korea has received millions of tonnes of food from around the world since 1995 to help alleviate hunger. Earlier this month it said it would suspend long-range missile tests in return for new massive US food aid, but Washington on Friday voiced doubt it could go ahead with the delivery after North Korea’s announced launch.
“We are totally independent,” Van Daal said.
“The North Korean ambassador based in Switzerland, who is also charged with affairs in the Netherlands, did attend our opening night in February,” he added, “but it was out of pure interest for our work.”
After more songs, Miss So returned to serving clients dishes like “black chicken soup” and “kimchis”, fermented pieces of Chinese cabbage, radish or onions, before placing small traditional Korean barbecues on the tables.
“North Korean food is not so different from South Korean food,” Van Daal said, adding “sushi actually comes from North Korea, you know.”