A shuttered special food court established by former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a showcase for "high quality dishes at reasonable prices" has reopened and is being allowed to operate independent of the government in a rare move seen by some as reflecting economic reforms.
The center in Hoeryong city in North Hamgyong province bordering China was closed several months after its opening in November 2010 because the management faced financial problems as it could not meet production costs based on food sold to the public at prices dictated by the authorities, sources said.
North Hamgyong authorities recently allowed the Hoeryong Special Food Court to reopen and operate on an "autonomous" basis under new economic management methods introduced last year by Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father's death in December 2011, the sources told RFA's Korean Service.
"In order to meet the demands of the New Economic Management System, [the ruling] Workers Party provincial offices allowed the restaurant owners at Hoeryong Special Food Court to operate on an autonomous management basis," one source in North Hamgyeong province said.
But some observers said the authorities had no choice but to allow the food center to set prices on its own to keep the operations alive, adding that any reform excuse was just an eyewash.
North Korea raced to build the food court after Kim Jong Il proposed it during a visit to his mother’s home town in 2009. He directed government funding of U.S. $800,000 for the project, which was completed in November 2010.
When he inspected the food court a month later, he ordered that it serve people with "high quality dishes at reasonable prices," asking it to follow in the footsteps of another food outlet, Okryu Restaurant, in Pyongyang.
The source in North Hamgyong province said that the Hoeryong Special Food Court tried to adjust its prices to keep in tandem with those of Okryu Restaurant but could not cope with operating costs.
“During the initial months of operations, the North Korean authorities [subsidized prices] but soon after, the restaurants lost support from the government, thus it went out of business,” another source in the province said.
Even though the authorities did not provide support, they continued to regulate the food prices to make them 75 percent cheaper than those of regular restaurants," the source said. "Therefore, the owners were suffering from financial difficulties."
Some sources complain that under the new management of the Hoeryong Special Food Court, food prices have shot up rapidly. In addition, food that is not on the menu is served.
For instance, a seafood specialty restaurant serves steak while a steak house offers noodles, one source complained.
“Before at Hoeryong restaurant, cold noodles were 1,000 North Korean won (about 17 cents), and one bottle of Korean distilled spirits was 800 won (about 10 cents), but after the owners got authority to manage independently, the price of cold noodles went up to 4,000 won (about 68 cents) and one bottle of Korean distilled spirits up to 2,000 won (about 34 cents).
Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.