It was my birthday recently and I wanted to do something a little different, so I decided to celebrate it in North Korea. Unfortunately, the Democratic People's Republic isn't that big on party package holidays, so I was forced to find an alternative a little closer to home.
Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is part of a chain of 60 restaurants in Asia run by the North Korean government. Specifically, it operates under the supervision of Office 39, an arm of the North Korean regime that oversees all revenue raising activities for the state. Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, a specialist on North Korea at Tufts University, Boston, told me that other – presumably more profitable – money-making activities "include money laundering, smuggling and drug dealing – the restaurants are a new and comparatively benign form of generating funds".
The North Korean government has been terminally short of cash since the 70s, and the recent financial crisis has left Kim Jong-un even lighter in the pocket. “My guess is the restaurants raise under £600,000 [€720,000] a year," said Professor Lee. "So they're not a critical source of currency for the Kim regime, but are nonetheless important to maintain."
I turned up at the restaurant on the evening of my birthday and a couple of my friends were there to greet me. The room was dark except for the stage, where five beautiful North Korean girls were performing a kind of ritualistic ballet to music that sounded a lot like Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds".
The restaurants are staffed by young, pretty women who appear to be the outward face of North Korean racialism. In their motherland, babies of mixed origin – usually the result of North Korean women being forcibly repatriated by China after getting pregnant as refugees – are aborted or killed by the state. As BR Myers says in his book The Cleanest Race, "The North Koreans [believe they] are born pure and selfless… they see themselves as a perennial child-nation… wanting only to be left in peace yet subjected to endless abuse and contamination from outsiders."
The strange ballet finished and the dancers walked off stage. They were replaced by a violinist, who soon began a pretty breathtaking performance that sounded like it would be more at home in the Royal Albert Hall than a strip-lit retail unit in Phnom Penh.
The rest of my party had arrived by this point and we were drinking beer and looking through the extensive menu. We ordered plates of prawns, dumplings and noodles. Sadly, North Korean specialties like kimchi and dog meat casserole were priced way out of my league – either an indication that they taste a whole let better than they sound, or that the DPRK are in serious need of foreign currency, so price their novelty tourist dishes far higher than the rest of the menu.
But is serving expensive boiled dog meat to foreigners the only way the regime are profiting from the Pyongyang restaurant chain? "Using the restaurants to launder money is entirely feasible," said Professor Lee, suggesting that a non-sinister looking operation with a high turnover like a restaurant could be used to process money earned through less legitimate means.
Back at the table I took out my camera and began snapping away. Before I could take more than a couple of photos, however, a waitress rushed over and made an "X" sign with her index fingers to stop me. Whatever the true financial purpose of the restaurant, it seems it carries a lot of the totalitarian baggage of its parent country.
Pyongyang has a number of tourism and hospitality schools, where waitresses are trained before being posted abroad. "The girls are only allowed to leave North Korea because they come from politically reliable backgrounds," said Dr Justin Hastings, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Sydney. "Their families in North Korea are guaranteed to suffer if they defect."
I asked one waitress where she lived and she pointed upstairs. She and the rest of the staff are reportedly rarely allowed to leave, and when they do they have to go in groups of three or four. Apparently the waitresses at Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap have never even been to the Angkor Wat temple, despite the fact it's only 20 kilometres away.
Dr Hastings spoke to one member of staff in a Chinese branch of the restaurant. "She said she had taken the position so her family didn’t have to find food for her while she was out of the country," he told me. While the devastating famine of the late 1990s has ended, North Korea still receives food aid and struggles to feed its people, so leaving the country to free up more food for your family, while a very sad thing to have to do, makes sense.
The waitresses seemed apprehensive while dealing with my table and other Westerners there that night – in fact, they were noticeably happier chatting to the South Korean customers. Watching them work the tables, they seemed pretty flirty, but – according to Dr Hastings, at least – they could have had an ulterior motive.
"The primary customers for North Korean restaurants are South Korean," he told me. "They have loose lips when they're drunk." The waitresses are trained to charm South Korean businessmen to gather information, and most restaurants have a VIP room for the richest and most important customers. "I would be stunned if the VIP rooms weren't bugged," said Dr Lee.
The final act of the stage show featured a rolling drum solo by a smiling beacon of North Korean racial purity, accompanied at points by other girls on guitar and bass. Our total spend was €72 – incredibly expensive for Phnom Penh, where you can buy yourself a decent dinner for between €1 to €6. I wonder what it’ll be spent on. Maybe some more military research? Sorry, everyone.
I arranged to interview the restaurant manager a few days after my party. When the time came, she didn’t show. "Come back tomorrow," a waitress told me. The next day, the manager failed to materialise again. I called her phone and found that she had somehow lost the ability to speak English.
So what did I learn from my visit to Pyongyang, Phnom Penh? That North Koreans aren't too keen on speaking to Westerners and want to avoid anyone asking awkward questions about workers' rights. Who knew?