Perhaps it is because I first went to school in Palermo, Sicily, that I have always found North Korea's conduct entirely logical and wholly transparent. In both places, extortion by intimidation is routinely practiced, though much more subtly in Sicily.
The transparency is not due to anything revealed by North Korea's string of rulers, from whom it is pointless to expect any change of policy -- just because the previous one liked Japanese food and film stars, or because the current Kim spent time in a Swiss boarding school. The regime, past and present, continues to exceed even Stalin's Soviet Union in its pervasive secrecy, but what remains in full public view is more than enough to explain its frenetically aggressive stance.
Even visitors closely escorted between North Korea's very few approved sites cannot miss the vital clues. Take the Pyongyang No. 1 Duck Barbecue Restaurant, the Pyongyang Number One Boat Restaurant, Pyulmori (a "Swiss" cafe), or the Austrian Helmut Sachers Kaffee -- among the few foreign-style eateries in the entire country besides Jilin-Chinese canteens in the border area. That one can eat palatable food in Pyulmori is phenomenal, but what is much more revealing is that both cafes serve authentic coffee actually extracted from real coffee beans.
All of North Korea's varied and extreme economic dysfunctions converge in its crippling shortage of foreign currency. Once the bulk of it is used to import military components, supplies, and subsystems from China (including the erector launcher vehicles for its ballistic missiles), very little foreign exchange is left. There is virtually none to import machinery to relaunch the country's hopelessly antiquated manufacturing industry, which totters on with decades-old Soviet machine tools and even some Japanese equipment from the 1930s. There is no foreign currency to import contemporary medicines for the population, which must make do with North Korean knockoffs of Chinese knockoffs of Western generics. There is no foreign currency to import even the cheapest forms of starch -- maize, sorghum, low-grade wheat -- when crops fail, so deadly famines are recurrent.
Yet there is enough foreign currency to import the coffee beans distilled at Pyulmori and Helmut Sachers Kaffee. The few half-starved cows sometimes seen browsing in harvested fields explain the unappealing bulgogi offered in the fancy restaurants, though North Korean waters do better in supplying the octopus, squid, and fish offered at the floating seafood house. But to procure a good espresso, the officials who allocate foreign currency -- automatically the supreme power in the land -- clearly found it necessary to set aside other priorities to import good roasted beans. Of course, none of this would explain anything if these were primarily tourist establishments operated to earn foreign currency. Stalin's body was hardly cold when communist regimes opened up for business with hard-currency shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars (not lacking in hard-currency companionship), which today still comprise Cuba's only successful industry.
But Pyongyang's ultraprime eateries are not that. A few foreign tourists end up dining there by way of relief from grim hotel canteens, along with a handful of humanity-loving NGO workers (who never miss out on luxuries and thus frequent these places), but both groups are simply too small to matter. Most customers are North Koreans who fall into two entirely distinct classes. First: anxious, pinched, and pallid men (rarely women) in standard blue North Korean suits, visibly excited by the heady foreign luxuries on offer -- members of midranking delegations from near or far that have wrangled or won access. The second class is the much better-dressed, better-fed singles and couples nonchalantly eating and drinking as if real coffee were an everyday pleasure for them. These are the likely parents of the children seen enjoying Pyongyang's splendidly polychrome merry-go-round expensively imported from Italy. (And this being the land of the portly Kim Jong Un, these children of the rich and privileged are apple-cheeked and distinctly chubby in a land where most children are visibly underweight.) No, these nonchalant eaters are not the winners of the capitalist free-for-all, entrepreneurs, top corporate professionals, or sports stars; they're high-ranking officials or military officers and their families, who support the Kim dynasty and win the perks of his favor.