"No photo! No photo!" I hear, as a woman in a yellow satin dress and kitten heels comes tearing across the cracked asphalt towards me. She's pretty, her ghostly skin made paler by about a quarter-inch crust of powder, her dark hair in a high ponytail. She's also pissed off, a fact that transcends any language barrier. "No photo," she adds, just for good measure. From a dimly lit space behind the glass, I see two other pairs of eyes watching. I shouldn't be surprised. North Korea isn't exactly known for its love affair with the press.
When the Democratic People's Republic decided to launch a global PR campaign, go figure they would do so in the most self-defeatingly secretive way possible. At the moment, there are more than 100 North Korean-themed restaurants scattered around the world, ostensibly for the purposes of generating government revenue and letting us all know a little bit more about the country's glorious culture. More than a few people have suspected them to also serve as elaborate money-laundering operations. Waitresses, chosen for their beauty and unfailing patriotism, are reportedly not allowed to leave the premises without supervision. There have been reports that when business is tough, their salaries are the first thing to go. Earlier this year, 13 women from a Chinese branch made break for it and defected to South Korea. Few others have dared to take the risk.
When I found out that there were several branches of the primary Pyongyang chain in Bangkok, curiosity got the better of me. With no website and a barely multilingual staff—my phone call is met only with muffled laughter—they don't seem to be going out of their way to attract customers. After wandering through the narrow side alleys of Ekkamai asking fruitlessly for directions, I came across a forlorn-looking plastic sign advertising lunch specials at Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant. Naively, I had assumed no one would notice if I took a couple quick snaps of the exterior, despite the clear depiction of a camera with a slash through it posted on the door.
Minutes later, I find myself swearing to Yellow Dress that I will never again take photos and I simply want to have lunch. Eyeing me skeptically, she inquires, "North Korean food delicious?"
"Yes, very delicious," I say. "I'm very sorry."
Not entirely satisfied, she seats me at the back of the fluorescent-bathed room decorated with tinsel and kitschy paintings, then proceeds to stand in a corner and stare directly at me. Whenever she needs to leave, one of her two colleagues—clad in matching blue and red dresses—glides in and takes her place. Over the next two hours, the only other two customers leave and one of Thailand's torrential rains floods the pavement outside. I eat a "Beef Noodle" dish that contains no noodles and a "Mixed Vegetable" dish that does while patriotic music blares in the background. All the while, my primary-colored escort watches.
When the deluge subsides, I grab the check, which at more than 600 Thai baht ($20) is steep for Bangkok, and bolt for the door.
"North Korean food delicious," Yellow Dress says, by way of farewell. Blue Dress and Red Dress nod in unison. Yes, yes, it is.
Unwilling to venture back, but still unsuccessful, I ditch my clunky DSLR and try my luck at Pyongyang Haemaji Restaurant off of Sukhumvit Road, this time with a friend and a smartphone camera in tow. The sign sports pastel-hued cartoon characters in traditional garb and promotional shots of North Korea's booming tourism industry. There are no visible windows.
Inside, the restaurant is vacant. In place of the stirring nationalistic music, there's a heavy, uncomfortable silence. Our wide-eyed, porcelain-faced waitress speaks little English and even less Thai, but we manage to establish that she is 20, that she comes from Pyongyang, and that North Korean food is delicious.
Actually, it is pretty delicious over at this particular branch. Though we don't get to try the "Authentic Pancake in the Osaka Style" or the "Stir-Fried Rape," both the toothsome rice cakes with seafood and the silky braised bok choy are tasty, if indistinguishable from their southern counterparts. Best of all are Pyongyang naengmyeon, a northern specialty of cool, slippery buckwheat noodles in a chile-laced broth with hard-boiled eggs, pork, and condiments that our waitress assembles methodically, giggling all the while, for a full five minutes. In the background, her coworkers stalk across the room at a languid pace. One stares listlessly at a wall and begins to sing loudly to herself.
"Do you sing?" I ask our waitress. A smile and a nod. Far more than their food, these restaurants are renowned for their nightly musical performances.
"Tonight. You come?" she asked. How could we not?
Which is how I find myself at a North Korean restaurant for the third time in 36 hours that evening watching a woman in a slinky, sequined gown of forest green belting out the most moving rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" I've ever heard. Some of the words are mangled or missing, but Céline Dion never sang them with such sincerity. The other staff members teeter by on vertiginous rhinestone-encrusted platform stilettos while a pair of South Korean businessmen—the only other patrons—knock back Singha beers. A steely-eyed waitress hovers around our table, standing guard.
Sure, the room is glaringly bright and all but empty, but nothing seems to lower the spirits of the performers. With broad, fixed smiles they prance between tables and work the invisible crowd. High heels clatter across the linoleum in not-quite-perfect unison. The curtains around the stage rustle and women, one wearing a lacy bridal number, dart in and out before their turn. As we step out, a shrill chorus of "bye bye!"s follows us into the damp, black Bangkok night.
Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant 72 Sukhumvit Road Soi 63; +66-2-020-0220; open daily 11am-11pm, performances at 7:30pm.
Pyongyang Haemaji Restaurant 83 Sukhumvit Road Soi 26; +66-2-262-1033; open daily 11am-11pm, performances at 8pm.