While most of North Korea deals with a protracted food shortage, lines are forming around the block for the first hamburger franchise in the nation’s capital, according to North Korean sources.
Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages has become a hit with residents of Pyongyang since opening in June last year, and the profits are streaming straight into the pockets of leader Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, sources said.
Samtaesung means "three huge stars" in English, and refers to Kim Jong Il, his father Kim Il Sung, and his mother Kim Jong Sook, according to the sources.
A resident of Pyongyang, who asked to remain anonymous, said the 24-hour hamburger restaurant is so popular that the inflow of customers is often overwhelming.
“The hamburger restaurant, which opened in [Pyongyang’s] Kaesun Youth Park, is crowded with customers from dawn till dusk, and one has to make a reservation one day in advance in order to eat there at any time between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.,” the resident said.
The same source also said that reservations cannot be made for dining after 11 p.m., and that long lines of people waiting to buy a hamburger can be seen in front of the restaurant at all times.
The resident said the hamburger restaurant opened at Pyongyang’s Kumsong Intersection after authorities signed a contract with a Singaporean company to open a franchise in June last year.
North Korean authorities are aware that hamburgers are a uniquely American food and have chosen not to use the English word to refer to it, as South Koreans do.
Instead, Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages sells various sorts of hamburgers under the description of “minced meat and bread,” and refers to the waffles it also sells as “baked dough.”
Customers wash down the Western delights with North Korean beverages including Pyongyang Cider and Kumgang Draft Beer.
According to rates displayed on the restaurant's menu, the cost of a hamburger is 228 North Korean won, or more than U.S. $2 according to the official exchange rate, putting it outside of the budget of the average citizen.
According to the Pyongyang resident, customers can pay in North Korean won, U.S. dollars, euros, or Chinese yuan.
Initially, the resident said, Samtaesung was frequented only by people who had traveled overseas or those who wanted to try the food out of curiosity, but the hamburger joint soon became very popular.
He said that many Pyongyang residents are now fond of hamburgers, though the greasier taste of the food takes some getting used to.
“The third time you eat a hamburger, you really get to appreciate it. By the time you’ve had your fifth, you’re already addicted to the taste,” he said.
A senior government official in North Korea’s Southern Pyongan province, who also requested anonymity, said the restaurant is entirely owned by Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui.
“Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages is Kim Kyong Hui’s personal operation. It is run by Light Industry Vice Minister and member of Kim Kyong Hui’s inner circle Kim Kyeong Oak, who is in charge of all operations of the hamburger joint, from management to overseas fund transfers,” the official said.
Kim Kyong Hui, 64, was recently appointed a four-star general together with Kim Jong Il’s son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un prior to the Third Korean Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference.
Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s only known sibling who is not a half brother or half sister, is also head of the Light Industry Division of the Workers’ Party Economic Policy Audit Department.
The senior official said management of the restaurant is tightly controlled.
“The flour used at Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages is imported from China through Sinuiju [on the Chinese border], and the profit generated by Samtaesung is deposited in Kim Kyong Hui’s overseas accounts, via China,” he said.
The official added that Samtaesung is subject to inspection by neither the Workers’ Party nor the [North] Korean People’s Army Guidance Bureau, and that figures for the amount of profit the business generates are unavailable.
He said that although North Korean authorities officially use the term “minced meat and bread,” the term “hamburger” is used informally by most people, and more hamburger joints are likely to open in Pyongyang in the future.
North Korea regularly faces food shortages, and a widespread famine in the 1990s killed up to 2 million people.
The country recently endured large-scale flooding, severely affecting farmland and crop yields. According to South Korea's Meteorological Administration, rainfall in North Korea jumped 139 percent above the monthly average to 12.6 inches in July.
North Korea's food shortages are caused by a combination of factors including a lack of arable land, erosion caused by deforestation, and inadequate water reservoirs necessary to fight drought, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
The agency says in its North Korea profile that assessments during 2008 and 2009 indicated "a marginal improvement in household food security," but noted that "public rations are reportedly far from sufficient and daily food consumption for most households is poor."
Reported by Moon Sung Hui for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.