The Restaurant Theory of Reform

Posted January 3, 2005

Categories: Articles, Food, Korea

When I lived in Moscow in 1985, in the first year of the Gorbachev era, it was hard to get a decent meal. I waited on line with my friends for hours just to eat a mediocre pizza with a sour tomato at its center. It was not the same everywhere in the Soviet bloc. In 1985, I also spent a month in Hungary, eating delicious fish soups and apple strudel, and drinking excellent red wines.

Back in the 1980s, the quality of restaurants in the Soviet bloc was a major indicator of the pace of economic reform. The Hungarians were way ahead of the rest, having launched their market experiments in the 1970s. Poland was a few steps behind with both its economic reforms and the quality of its restaurants. And Russia – along with Romania – was at the back of the pack: tough meat, canned vegetables, and unappetizing centralized planning.

East Asia has witnessed a similar linkage of restaurants and reform. In her book on food and sex in China, Judith Farquhar describes how, in 1990, the single vegetable that Mao-era Chinese ate all winter long – cabbage – rotted in large quantities for the first time in Beijing depots. Because of the economic reforms, entrepreneurial farmers had begun to grow a wide variety of vegetables, so consumers were no longer stuck with the monotonous state produce. It was once a joke that the last place to find a good Chinese restaurant was in Mainland China. The reforms that rolled through China in the 1980s changed all that.

Without quite admitting it, North Korea is patterning its economic “adjustments” on the Chinese model. So, not surprisingly, Pyongyang is now experiencing its own explosion of new restaurants. According to the Japanese Choson Sinbo, there are now 500 eateries in the North Korean capital. These restaurants are an important indicator that the 2002 economic reforms are profoundly changing North Korean society.

Visitors to North Korea report that these new restaurants, including a microbrewery and a hamburger restaurant, are competing for customers. The Tongil Market and other private markets are supplying the new enterprises. The gourmet revolution extends beyond just cold noodles, for which Pyongyang and Hamhung are justly famous. Film companies from both North and South recently announced that they will co-produce a documentary on the 100 best North Korean dishes.

With many different categories of “comrade,” North Korea was always the most stratified of the communist countries. The new North Korea, full of swank restaurants and bustling private markets, is an even more divided country. The economic reforms have widened the gap between rich and poor. A new “red capitalist” elite is emerging, just as it did in the former Soviet bloc. Those with connections and power under the old system are trying to carve out privileged positions in the new order. The new agricultural system is also increasing the wealth of certain farmers. Meanwhile the poor live in the cities, have less access to land to grow food or raise livestock, and have seen their paychecks shrink from inflation. The World Food Program estimates that much of the country receives a ration of only 250 grams of food a day, about two bowls of rice. Very few are benefiting from economic reform. Very few can afford to buy a hamburger.

Although the economic adjustment has only widened disparities of wealth, the importance of North Korea’s restaurant revival is not restricted to a handful of lucky diners. The restaurant kitchens are keeping the market sellers and middlemen in business. And the markets are keeping farmers and families afloat in the countryside. This is a harsh “trickle-down” process. But after ten years of food crisis and a barely functioning economy, the crowded restaurants of Pyongyang suggest that a new system of supply and demand is taking shape. By embarking on the same path that the Hungarians, Russians, and Chinese have already traversed, North Koreans are demonstrating a new appetite for reform.

Munhwa Ilbo, June 21, 2005

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