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Edible 'sunshine'

Koreans from North and South laugh warmly together at Bangkok's only North Korean restaurant, suggesting that the 'Sunshine' reconciliation policy really could work

Published on February 3, 2008

North Korean women in puffy, candy-coloured dresses take turns dancing, singing and playing instruments, but it's not a birthday telecast for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. It's a typical night at a unique restaurant on the outskirts of Bangkok.

A packed house of boisterous, mostly male South Koreans on a Thailand package tour stuff themselves with tasty North Korean dishes, washing them down with generous amounts of soju, the Korean rice wine, and Singha beer.

An Internet search for "North Korean food" leads to stories of famine in the isolated Marxist country, but there are also Thai-language blogs raving about Pyongyang Gwan, the only North Korean restaurant in Bangkok.

There's another branch in Pattaya - the only other North Korean eatery in Thailand - and no one's going hungry there or at the branch in the capital's Suan Luang district.

"South Korean food is spicier than what you find in the North," says Watchapon Ngisantia, the restaurant's Thai manager, but there are no other major differences.

Meals begin with small, complimentary dishes of pickled kimchi, though not the most popular southern type, the spicy fermented cabbage. The other kinds, like seaweed tempura, are indeed milder than what you find in Bangkok's Koreatown on Sukhumvit Road.

The menu features dozens of classic dishes that transcend the heavily fortified border of the homeland, such as bibimbap (rice, veggies, egg and red-pepper paste in a stone bowl) and naengmyon (chilled buckwheat noodles). All dishes here are cooked by North Korean chefs.

South Korean president-elect Lee Myung-bak wants to get tougher with the North, spelling doom for his country's reconciliatory Sunshine Policy, but at Pyongyang Gwan, people-to-people exchanges between North and South are delightfully warm.

The smiling guests from the South happily applaud the northern entertainment - there's no thought about their countries remaining technically at war. In recent months the striving for peace on the peninsula has seen progress in negotiations on the North's nuclear programme.

Pyongyang Gwan also attracts diplomats from the nearby North Korean embassy during the daytime, besides South Korean tourists arriving in large coaches for lunch and for dinner. They love the food and drink and the cultural performances.

Rare in Bangkok, these involve versatile northern women dancing and singing northern and southern Korean pop songs and ballads and performing Western classics like "The William Tell Overture" on guitar, accordion and drums. Sometimes the southerners sing and dance along.

"All the performers here are graduates of the elite Pyongyang Music University," says one of them, An Su-hyang. The school specialises in training women in a range of dramatic arts - as North Korea's answer to the versatile Japanese geisha.

At one recent evening show An was entertaining in a Western-style party dress; for a recent lunchtime show for South Korean tourists she changed into a traditional hanbok.

Elegantly sashaying up and down the aisles while singing into a microphone, the songstresses shake customers' hands while trying to avoid the most flirtatious and red-faced men.

When their colleagues are singing, other entertainers roam the restaurant with scissors to cut naengmyon noodles down to a slurpable length. Unable to speak much English or Thai, they gracefully smile and make gestures to show that they are not offering customers a haircut.

North Korea's leaders are known for their ferocious side, but the northerners who work at Pyongyang are most hospitable, and show why the Sunshine Policy could work.

They shy away from talking too deeply about politics with their southern guests, not wanting the seriousness of the peninsula's problems to get in the way of having fun together.

And with the North's government less bellicose lately, perhaps now is a perfect time to see North Koreans promoting their traditional culture and cuisine - and showing that K-pop need not all come from the South.

Pyongyang Gwan on Phatthanakan 20 Yaek 6 is open daily from 11am to 10pm. Call (02) 717 5700.

Carleton Cole

The Nation

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