SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Rows of crowded tables are spread with bowls of chilled buckwheat noodles, mung bean pancakes, and blueberry drinks. "This is the original," declares a customer between appreciative slurps of the thin, gray noodles.
Here at Okryukwan, diners are enjoying culinary delights some haven't had in 50 years. The best-known restaurant based in reclusive North Korea opened its first branch in capitalist South Korea last week.
It's also the first North Korean business to come here, and it is laden with political significance for a divided nation.
Bedecked in bouquets and mobbed by curious crowds, Okryukwan offers the promise of further inter-Korean exchange. Many here consider this the first taste of authentic North Korean culture to reach the South.
Although South Korean companies have several investments in the North, there has been virtually no interaction between the two peoples nor exchange of cultural products. In an exclusive contract with North Korea's Chosun Okru Trading Company, South Korean Kim Young Baek worked for months to establish the restaurant and get it approved by the two governments. Mr. Kim has done business with communist North Korea for several years, building a noodle factory there in 1995. But Kim doesn't wax poetic about national reunification, or seem to care that his restaurant is a first. "I'm a businessman," he says.
The chef, meanwhile, is preoccupied with noodles. A Japanese-Korean, Park Soo Nam was trained by a noodle master in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, at the original Okryukwan. "North Korean noodles are stiffer, and the broth is thick," says Mr. Park. Although Korea is a small country, towns are known for individual noodle styles, deriving identity and pride from them the way a Texas town would from its barbecue sauce.
The Okryukwan in Seoul seats 360 people - only a tenth the capacity of the original in Pyongyang. Most customers are elderly, here to experience the long-lost tastes of an inaccessible homeland. Shin Eui Ju waited two hours in line under the mid-day sun. "They should have had maps in the paper. I had to ask 20 or 30 taxi drivers," he grouses. But after a few bites, his smile is as bright as his royal-blue suit. Younger Koreans say they're curious, but will wait until the lines die down.
A number of North Korean defectors have opened noodle restaurants here too. But Okryukwan is the only one that imports everything directly from North Korea, from the buckwheat flour to the chopsticks.
Some see the irony in North Korea exporting food while a famine continues into its fifth year. International aid groups have analyzed samples of noodles that common North Koreans are eating. The flour is made from leaves, twigs, and bark. Kim says that profits remitted from his business will help North Korea feed its people.
But a tricky aspect to Kim's business will be remitting 1.5 percent of sales to North Korea as royalties for using the Okryukwan name and recipes. South Korea's Constitution doesn't recognize the country of North Korea as legitimate, much less its patent office. One official at Seoul's Ministry of Unification sees "legal difficulties" with setting such a precedent. North Korea could claim royalties from every other South Korean business with a northern name.
"They have a lot of pride in the restaurant," says Kim. "The fact that Pyongyang Okryukwan opens in Seoul has a lot of political meaning for them." But it doesn't mean North Korea is ready to join the world. "Recently, a few North Koreans told me that although Western values are dominating the world, it doesn't mean that they have to take part in it. The definition of Western values isn't confined to market democracy," says Kim.