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In a trendy Seoul neighborhood, a taste of repressive North Korea

Charlie Miller/CNN

In a hip neighborhood in Seoul, South Koreans are getting a taste of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

There are posters of smiling North Korean women. There are banners in the style of North Korean propaganda. And there are beers that look like they’ve come straight from a North Korean state-owned brewery.

Welcome to Pyongyang Pub, Seoul’s North Korea-themed watering hole.

Forbidden fruit

With its authoritarian regime and tightly controlled tour groups, North Korea isn’t the easiest place in the world to visit. North and South Korea are technically still at war, and for many South Koreans, Pyongyang Pub is as close as they are likely to get to going north of the border themselves.

Here, you can order what regular North Koreans eat, try on traditional hanbok (dresses) that North Koreans wear, and check out household items made in North Korea, including toothpaste, cosmetics and cigarettes.

Although there are other places in Seoul where you can try out North Korean fare, this is the city’s first-known restaurant that has tried to turn itself into a little slice of the Hermit Kingdom.

Both the inside and outside the bar are painted mint green, a nod to apartments and buildings in North Korea which are often in pastel colors, according to the owner Kim, who asked not to give his full name as he was concerned about online criticism.

On the other side

But there are little signs that the bar which sits alongside fashionable boutiques and bustling restaurants in the trendy neighborhood of Hongdae isn’t exactly like the pubs across the border. Hongdae, a university area next to the city’s Han River, is also home to the headquarters of YG Entertainment, one of the biggest K-pop labels.

For a start, the propaganda slogans on Pyongyang Pub swap patriotism for hedonism — think “more drinks for comrades,” “let’s bring about a great innovation in the manufacturing of bar snacks,” and “let’s make a new leap forward in the construction of a drinking powerhouse.”

And here, the beer is German — on closer inspection, the Taedonggang label is only a parody of North Korea’s most famous beer. (Eagle-eyed diners will spot that the characters on the bottle are slightly different, swapping “dong” for “ddong,” which means “poop”).

About two years ago, Kim decided he wanted to bring authentic North Korean food to South Korea. And from the moment people walked in, he wanted it to feel like North Korea — a place that carries a lot of mystique in South Korea.

He pored over images on social media from people who work in embassies in North Korea, and consulted with North Koreans who had defected to South Korea. He decorated the place with authentic North Korean items that were smuggled out via China.

Shifting rivalries

On the spot where Pyongyang Pub now stands, Kim ran a Japanese restaurant for about seven years. But this year’s ongoing trade spat between South Korea and Japan saw sales slip by 50% compared with last year, so Kim closed the restaurant in July and opened his long-planned North Korean bar in its place.

The menu features common North Korean food, such as rice with marinated tofu, sweet rice sundaes and potato rice cakes.

Kim himself recommends the seasoned rice with soy meat, sweetcorn pancakes and the Pyongyang Naengmyeon, a cold noodle dish which was served at the first inter-Korean summit last year between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

But even before the bar opened, Kim found himself at the center of another controversy.

On social media, some questioned whether the bar contravened South Korea’s 71-year-old National Security Act which bans praising anti-government organizations, such as North Korea.

The law itself is controversial. Used widely while South Korea was under military dictatorship from the 1960s to 1980s, the law was designed to protect South Korea against North Korean propaganda and to prosecute spies. The most serious punishment under the act is the death penalty.

In recent years, human rights groups have argued that the law could be used to persecute political dissidents and stifle free speech.

Police from Mapo-gu — the district where the bar is located — said that police had decided that the pub wasn’t in violation of the act, although that decision wasn’t finalized and they were continuing to monitor the situation.

“For it to be a violation, it must have the element of intentionally praising (North Korea’s regime or its leader),” a police official told CNN. “However, it was for marketing purposes.”

Nevertheless, Kim took steps to make sure his bar didn’t cross any lines. He took down the portraits of two former North Korean leaders that hang in every North Korean restaurant, and switched them for pictures of United States President Donald Trump and comedian Kim Gyeong-jin (no relation) pulling silly expressions.

“It is just to induce a laugh. It does not have a deep meaning,” he said. “I didn’t want the bar to have a serious atmosphere.”

Ultimately, Kim said, he didn’t open the restaurant to praise North Korea’s leaders.

“I just made it so that people could have fun and enjoy,” he said.

The talk of the town

Still, Pyongyang Pub’s theme — and its controversial local coverage — has already attracted curious local customers and a smattering of foreign patrons.

“It has recently become the talk of the town, so I felt like coming at least once,” said 27-year-old Byeon Yoon-suk, who works at a beverage company and visited the bar with his colleagues. “I think the interior is most unique … It’s kind of novel.”

And many customers were unconcerned about worries the bar could run afoul of the law.

“[The bar] never glorifies North Korea,” said Kim Jin-ah, a 45-year-old who hosts a home shopping show on television. “I think you can understand it as just a parody, (something) fun.”

And while the place is clearly a novelty, some people said they’d like to come again.

Pyongyang Pub, 6 Wausan-ro 19-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea, +82 2-332-3066

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