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Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 12 News List

North Korea enters one of capitalism's most competitive markets: fast food


Famine-struck North Korea has opened its first fast-food restaurant in communist Vietnam, hoping to cash in on a taste for the unusual in boomtown Ho Chi Minh City.

The main dish on the menu at the 50-seat restaurant is naengmyeon -- wheat noodles served ice-cold, with a dash of traditional Korean pickle and broth extracted from cow's lungs and intestines.

"The establishment will serve Vietnamese comrades," said Ryu H.Y., one of the eatery's four North Korean managers.

Sited on the edge of a bustling commercial quarter in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, the Taedonggang Pyongyang restaurant was nearly full on Saturday, its opening day.

"The food here tastes great, it's very, very delicious," said Hattori Tsuneo, a Japanese businessman based in the city formerly known as Saigon.

He sampled cold noodles and raw salmon.

Paying the equivalent of just over US$2 for a set meal -- not too much more than a Vietnamese eatery's average rice dish -- customers could wash it all down with soft drinks, Heineken beer or Japanese sake rice wine.

Communist Vietnam, where average annual incomes still hover around US$400, has few international fast-food chains. The US Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jollibee Foods Corp from the Philippines operate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ryu said he was sure that besides local Vietnamese, foreign tourists "contributing to the friendship and understanding between North Korea and the world" would also opt to eat there.

On the dining room's bright pink walls, pictures showed happy North Korean families rowing in the River Taedonggang, after which the restaurant is named.

The restaurant represents one of the rare links that Vietnam, which has experienced many capitalist influences in recent years, has with the reclusive east Asian state.

"The restaurant is important for North Korea's internationalization," Ryu said in near-perfect French as a North Korean embassy staffer from the capital Hanoi looked on.

North Korea is regarded as one of the world's most isolated countries and its hardline communist leaders are extremely wary of foreign influences.

The restaurant is only the third North Korean restaurant open for business in southeast Asia.

One is located in Cambodia's Siem Reap and the other is in Phnom Penh.

The Korea International Travel Company is the sole owner with a US$100,000 investment in the Vietnam eatery.

Ryu said the Korea International Travel Company was eyeing expansion to other cities and countries throughout Asia and Europe in an effort to promote the reclusive North Korea's "special characteristics."

"We will start small but grow big," Ryu said.

"We are capable of running a business too," he said.

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