It is little more than a footnote in the back-and-forth over the planned North Korea summit — but the rumor of a McDonald’s in Pyongyang is juicier than a three-patty Big Mac.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may allow a “Western hamburger franchise” into the country as a show of good will to the United States, according to an intelligence report described by U.S. officials to NBC.
That follows remarks by South Korean adviser Chung-in Moon in late April, who said that North Korea might be interested in welcoming a McDonald’s as tensions ease.
Compared to the threat of nuclear war, of course, a Pyongyang McDonald’s seems like small fries. But experts and history suggest there’s more at play here than one token franchise.
McDonald’s has long been seen as a symbol of Western culture and capitalism — particularly in Communist countries. And it’s expansion into China and Russia was seen as a landmark in the 1990s.
“This has happened with a number of different Communist cultures,” said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center and the managing editor of 38 North, an academic news site about North Korea. “Once they start to get different points of contact with the West, it changes their views — and it usually starts with McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.”
From its earliest days, McDonald’s has been more than a fast-food restaurant. It also is a vector for American culture and a powerful symbol of globalization.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
In the 1970s, when the chain expanded into Europe, it used the tagline “United Tastes of America” in its ad campaigns. It also promised to bring all-American business values — speed, standardization and ruthless efficiency — to the countries where it operated.
McDonald’s now operates 37,241 more-or-less identical, highly profitable locations in 120 countries. In his book “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s,” longtime president Ray Kroc called the company “my personal monument to capitalism.”
That may explain why the company’s expansion into Communist countries has been treated as a milestone in the past. When Moscow got its first franchise in 1990, Russians waited in line for hours to eat at what USA Today called “this city’s new symbol of capitalism.”
Not long after its Russian debut, McDonald’s began popping up in Beijing and Shenzhen. Chinese customers hated the food, ethnographer Yunxiang Yan found, but loved the aura of prosperity and progress.
“In the eyes of Beijing residents,” he wrote in 1997, “McDonald’s represents Americana and the promise of modernization.”
Town, of 38 North, said McDonald’s can expose people to a side of the United States with which they may be unfamiliar. That can help moderate negative views in places such as North Korea, where anti-American propaganda is widespread.
Town said she thinks it would make sense for McDonald’s to open in Pyongyang. It would probably be popular: North Korea has approached McDonald’s about franchising in the recent past, she said, but has had to turn to Singaporean burger knockoffs instead.
A spokesman for McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Kim Jong Un also is believed to like burgers. In 2011, a South Korean newspaper reported that his father regularly had McDonald’s flown from China on Air Koryo jets. And President Donald Trump is a big fan of fast-food as well.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!
You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.
According to NBC, Kim hopes to open a chain in Pyongyang in part to cater meals for future bilateral conferences.
But Kayla Orta, an analyst in the History and Public Policy Program at the bipartisan Wilson Center, said she could not imagine that happening.
“Perhaps the day we see American-style fast food restaurants in North Korea will be the day cultural diplomacy triumphs,” she said. “But we’re a long way off from that day.”