- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has ordered the opening of the isolated country’s first Italian restaurant, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper reported, despite the nation’s continuing struggle to feed its 24 million people.

Kim _ a reputed gourmand _ sent North Korean cooks to Naples and Rome last year to learn how to reproduce authentic Italian pizza and pasta after “repeated trial and error,” the newspaper said Saturday, citing a restaurant manager.

“Our people should be also allowed to enjoy the world-famous food,” the manager of the Pyongyang eatery quoted Kim as saying, according to the Tokyo-based Choson Sinbo newspaper.

The newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for the communist regime in Pyongyang, said the North’s government buys wheat flour, butter and cheese from Italy for the restaurant.

It is unclear how many North Koreans can afford to eat out _ let alone eat imported food _ in a country that is among the poorest in the world. The average per capita income was $1,150 in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the South’s central bank.

The North faces chronic food shortages and has relied on food aid to feed its population since a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million in the mid and late-1990s.

The country does, however, have an elite _ mostly high-level government officials _ who enjoy luxuries. Kim himself is believed to be a lover of cognac, French wine and delicacies such as shark fin soup and caviar.

The paper reported that the restaurant has been crowded since opening in December. Many of its customers were eating Italian food for the first time, the report said.

“Though I knew well from television and publications that pizza and spaghetti are world-famous food, it is the first time that I’ve tasted it,” Jong Un-Suk, 42, told the newspaper.

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