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In heart of Seoul, a North Korea-themed bar that walks the line on legality

South Korea’s National Security Act is a law that penalises praise of North Korea or support of Kim Jong Un’s regime. A few weeks before and after the bar opened, local news reports and social media in South Korea were abuzz, debating whether the bar violated this national law.

Written by Neha Banka | Seoul, South Korea | Updated: January 1, 2020 1:24:27 am
Word spread because of social media, says Kim Seong-geon, 27, the bar manager. “People began sharing photos because of the unique interiors.” (Express photo: Neha Banka)

SEOUL: It is not unusual to find North Korean food in Seoul. Several restaurants across the country serve various North Korean-style dishes. But Pyongyang Bar, a new restaurant and bar in the South Korean capital, has taken the experience of North Korean dining one step further.

Located in the trendy neighbourhood of Hongdae in Seoul, filled with bars and restaurants on almost every street, Pyongyang Bar, stands out not just because of its name. The bright lights of the bar’s pink and mint green exterior highlight the large-scale North Korean propaganda images and graphics in Hangul, the Korean script. At the very top of the bar are two images, one of US President Donald Trump and the other of Kim Kyung-jin, a Korean impersonator of Kim Jong Un, in a nod to their meetings during bilateral summits in 2018 and 2019 and US-DPRK relations. It is impossible not to be drawn in, if only out of curiosity. For many South Koreans and foreigners, this is the closest they can get to experience a little of North Korea.

Colourful propaganda posters have been plastered on the walls and a glass-enclosed section of the bar has a range of products from North Korea on display, smuggled out of North Korea into China and available for purchase in border towns. Instrumental North Korean music plays inside and waitresses are dressed in colourful traditional hanbok as their uniform. Word spread because of social media, says Kim Seong-geon, 27, the bar manager. “People began sharing photos because of the unique interiors.”

Jang Woo-kyung, 43, has been in the restaurant business for a decade. Prior to opening Pyongyang Bar, he was running a Japanese pub in the same location for seven years. He had to close the pub down after diplomatic tensions between Japan and Korea soured resulting in anti-Japan sentiments and campaigns in South Korea. “After that campaign my sales decreased by 50 per cent. I had no choice other than changing the bar. I was looking for a new concept that nobody had tried before. I had a meeting with an interior designer and he suggested a North Korean-theme pub and I thought it would be fun and might bring back sales,” Jang tells indianexpress.com.

The bright lights of the bar’s pink and mint green exterior highlight the large-scale North Korean propaganda images and graphics in Hangul, the Korean script. (Express photo: Neha Banka)

Planning the interiors and other aspects of the bar’s theme involved months of research to get the look that Jang wanted. “I did a lot of research through books, the internet, documentary films, YouTube and (through) meetings (with) North Korean defectors. There are some restaurants in South Korea run by North Korean defectors and I’ve learned recipes from them,” says Jang. The defectors, who now run their own restaurants in South Korea, he says, helped him set the menu according to the preferences of South Koreans.

South Korea’s National Security Act is a law that penalises praise of North Korea or support of Kim Jong Un’s regime. A few weeks before and after the bar opened, local news reports and social media in South Korea were abuzz, debating whether the bar violated this national law.

Jang says that was never the intention. “Before posting Kim’s portraits (inside the bar), we checked with the lawyer who told us that it was not going to be a problem, because that was not praising North Korea.” Jang says the initial news coverage of his establishment in local Korean press alluded that he was attempting to praise North Korea, giving rise to the controversy that followed. “I think the news article made people believe that my bar is North Korea-friendly and that I opened it to praise North Korea. I just posted Kim’s portrait for fun. I just want my customers feel like they are really in Pyongyang. My keyword (during planning) was ‘realistic’,” says Jang.

The products themselves are a fascinating collection of everyday items and food products—cigarettes, teas, chocolates, dried fish, various North Korean liquors, beer, postcards and North Korean-style hanbok available for rental. (Express photo: Neha Banka)

This controversial law was used by South Korea, particularly when the country was under the military dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee between 1963-1979, to prevent North Korean propaganda and to prosecute individuals suspected of being spies, acts that were punishable by death. The law has drawn criticism from human rights watchers who say it could be used to stifle legitimate criticism and free speech, particularly by political opponents and dissidents. According to local news reports and CNN, South Korean police had investigated the issue and decided that the bar had not been violating the law but the decision was not final.

The North Korean products on display inside the bar are not for sale because Jang is not permitted to sell them in South Korea. The products themselves are a fascinating collection of everyday items and food products—cigarettes, teas, chocolates, dried fish, various North Korean liquors, beer, postcards and North Korean-style hanbok available for rental. The bottles of liquor and beer are empty because bringing them into South Korea is not allowed, says Jang, explaining how he sourced these products from Dandong, a Sino-North Korean border town in China.

Colourful propaganda posters have been plastered on the walls and a glass-enclosed section of the bar has a range of products from North Korea on display, smuggled out of North Korea into China and available for purchase in border towns. (Express photo: Neha Banka)

Jae Kim, 37, who works as an English teacher in Seoul, was visiting for the second time in one week with her friends because of the bar’s novelty. “Some other restaurants in Seoul have North Korean food so it’s not unusual. But have you ever seen a bar that is decorated like it is in North Korea? No! In this way we get to have a little bit of experience because of the atmosphere and food etc.,” says Kim.

“Some people take this really seriously while others think, oh, this is interesting,” she says of the criticism the bar has received due to its theme. “I thought, they are just doing it for fun. Some come here for fun, while others are really against it. It’s like you’re back in Korea during the 1950s-60s.” Kim believes that older Koreans like her parents may enjoy the bar’s theme because it is reminiscent of the era that they grew up in and there aren’t many such establishments remaining in Seoul today.

Planning the interiors and other aspects of the bar’s theme involved months of research to get the look that Jang wanted. (Express photo: Neha Banka)

Jang says his bar has been popular with foreigners in Seoul since it opened in mid-October and some customers who have visited North Korea, draw parallels with what they have experienced in the country themselves. “Some Koreans are still very serious about (the restaurant),” says Jang. He doesn’t know whether his bar will work in the long-term, but going by the crowds that are drawn to his establishment thanks to social media and word of mouth, for now, he feels hopeful.

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