Russian city with Korean flavour welcomes Kim

Anna MALPAS
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North Koreans in the far-eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok do not venture an opiniion when asked about the summit between President Kim Jung Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin

North Koreans in the far-eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok do not venture an opiniion when asked about the summit between President Kim Jung Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin (AFP Photo/Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)

Vladivostok (Russia) (AFP) - Waitresses at the North Korean restaurant in Vladivostok have broad smiles but fall silent when asked what they think about the visit of leader Kim Jong Un to the Russian city.

"I don't understand Russian," they say when pressed on Kim's first trip to the country, despite using the language for taking orders.

With national dish kimchi and delicacies such as shark fin soup on the menu, along with kitsch socialist realist paintings on the walls, the restaurant is just one sign of the port city's ties with its Asian neighbour.

Here diners can read Russian-language booklets packed with the supreme leader's thoughts on creating a "rich and powerful homeland".

These ties made Vladivostok -- just 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the border with North Korea -- the natural choice for Kim and Putin's first meeting.

Kim followed the same route from the border in his armoured train as his father and grandfather.

Outside the restaurant, locals expressed excitement at the high-profile visit and a sense of fellowship with North Korea even if few have ever visited.

Nadezhda, a 61-year-old lawyer, took her five-year-old grandson to watch Kim's arrival at the city's art nouveau train station.

She talked with nostalgia of going to school with Koreans on the far eastern Russian island of Sakhalin.

"We really love Koreans, we respect and love them," she said, but declined to comment on the policies of the current North Korean leader.

- 'Our nearest neighbours' -

While the city welcomed Kim, visitors from South Korea were far more in evidence.

Many of them had gathered to take selfies on the main square, looking onto a harbour teeming with Russian naval vessels and cargo ships.

The main pedestrian street has shops that specialise in Korean food and cosmetics. Signs luring tourists in to buy traditional matryoshka dolls are written in languages including Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

"Koreans mainly buy beer," said Svetlana Lushchina, a 38-year-old cashier at a store selling Korean sweets and biscuits alongside Russian chocolate bars.

"Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese -- they come along in waves, as groups."

She said her husband was one of the drivers who took delegates to Russky Island, off the Pacific city, for the talks.

"It's important that such powerful people are meeting in Vladivostok," Lushchina said, adding that she was following the event closely.

In her cosy shop selling Russian crafts, 61-year-old Nina Guminyuk said large numbers of South Koreans began arriving several years ago and were snapping up matryoshka dolls and brightly coloured pottery.

But North Koreans are rare visitors to her store, she said, only coming as part of official delegations to the nearby regional administration.

"It's rare, maybe two or three times a year," she estimated.

"There are no tourists from North Korea."

For some South Koreans, Kim's visit was a draw and many came to the rail station to catch a glimpse of him.

One, Ye Won Lee from Seoul, said he was a "dangerous person."

Others however expressed indifference.

"Yeah whatever," said Jiehuyn, a 32-year-old accountant carrying her young daughter in a sling as she posed for a photo in front of a Soviet-era statue.

She said she knew of Kim's visit but struggled to come up with an opinion.

"I don't know why he came here, I don't know exactly."

Another tourist from Seoul, Hyun Jeong Lee, travelling with friends in Russia, responded through a translation app on her pink cell phone: "Sorry, I'm not interested."

Vladivostok residents were more enthusiastic.

Yelena, a 51-year-old accountant, scrolled through her cell phone to show pictures she took of the motorcade cruising down the main street with North Korean journalists filming through a car roof window.

"We need to be friends," she said, "live peacefully, not fight,"

"These are our nearest neighbours."