SINGAPORE — One bargaining chip Kim Jong Un may bring to the negotiating table for his summit meeting with President Trump on Tuesday is an offer to open a Western hamburger franchise in Pyongyang.
However, that franchise wouldn’t be the first fast-food joint in the isolated nation.
The man who introduced the hamburger to North Korea is actually right here in Singapore: 63-year-old Patrick Soh, who opened his first restaurant in Pyongyang in 2009.
Soh operates a local franchise of tiny Virginia Beach, Va.-based restaurant Waffletown USA. In 2008, he was connected by a pair of Singaporean businessmen to a North Korean state-owned company looking to start a franchise. Soh said he immediately jumped at the offer.
“I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’” he said. “In business, if you don't try, you don't know. I thought it would be a good challenge for me.”
Soh quickly discovered just how much of a challenge the project would be, starting at the most fundamental level: The overwhelming majority of North Koreans had absolutely no idea what a hamburger was.
In fact, they didn’t even have a word for the all-American food since the English language is banned in North Korea. They settled on a literal description, calling it minced beef and bread. The name of the restaurant also had to be changed and became Samtaesong ("three big stars").
Despite the hurdles, Soh said he was impressed at how quickly his staff picked up the foreign concepts.
“Their working attitude was very good,” he said. “They were eager to learn. Within a few weeks they understood everything they needed to start the business “
The food turned out to be an immediate hit in a nation where exposure to the outside world has been severely limited. In addition to burgers, Samtaesong sells waffles and fried chicken, side dishes such as French fries and even cola imported from a Singaporean distributor.
“(Customers) found it very interesting, different,” Soh said. “They had never seen burgers and French fries before, never had cola. Even paper cups with plastic lids were new. It was a totally different experience for them, so they were curious.”
The franchise tweaked its menu slightly, making the dishes less salty to suit local tastes. The one concession to the local cuisine was replacing coleslaw on the menu with kimchi, the fiery fermented cabbage that is a staple of Korean food.
Samtaesong has continued to expand and now has about 30 outlets: Five are sit-down restaurants and the rest are takeout stands.
Kim Jong Un himself has even paid a visit to one of the locations. While Soh wasn’t there at the time, he figures Kim must have approved.
“I think (his reaction) was good,” Soh said. “If not, I could not expand my business anymore.”
The price for a basic burger is about $2.25 — not cheap for a country where the average annual income was about $1,300 last year. Customers are mainly drawn from university students, government officials and a small-but-growing middle class, as well as foreigners such as embassy staff.
Soh said he believes North Korea hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface as a destination for investment if the strict sanctions imposed last year by the United Nations can be eased. So he’s watching Tuesday’s summit between President Trump and Kim with eager anticipation.
“I hope the summit goes smoothly so they can lift the sanctions,” he said. “It's good for the North Korean people to improve their living standards, and at the same time it's good for business ventures.”
Long time North Korea observers say that economic changes over the past few years have been striking, at least within Pyongyang, the capital city of 3.2 million.
Calvin Chua, a Singapore-based architect and urban planner, has visited North Korea several times since 2008 through his work with a group called Choson Exchange, which conducts workshops in North Korea to help train budding entrepreneurs.
“In terms of infrastructure & city development, Pyongyang has basically skyrocketed under Kim Jong Un,” he said.
When he first visited, Pyongyang had the eerie, artificial feeling of a giant stage set, Chua said.
“But now Pyongyang resembles more of a real city,” he said. “There are more cars on the road, there are traffic jams, there are people queuing up for buses and taxis. You can feel the life of an emerging city.”
Soh has also seen his fast-food business transform in the years since Kim took over ruling the country in 2011 after his father, Kim Jong Il, died. When Soh started his first restaurant, there were strict controls not to make it too colorful or Westernized.
But in recent years, he’s been able to spruce up the uniforms and give the places a more modern feel.
Soh has also introduced a number of firsts to Pyongyang, from children’s play areas at the restaurants to food delivery to nearby university campuses. North Korea has also eased up on the the language restrictions, and many customers now use the English word "hamburger."
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Soh and his partners have even converted one outlet to a Starbucks-like café, although Soh’s not sure whether North Korea is quite ready for it yet. “I think it’s still too expensive,” he said.
Looking forward, Soh sees a world of opportunities. He has been thinking about trying to introduce new foreign foods to North Korea — a Thai restaurant, perhaps, or maybe bringing over a local Singaporean staple, Hainanese chicken rice.
“Hopefully (North Koreans) can get some new ideas to help them catch up with the world,” Soh said. “I think what they really need are friends."