It was my birthday recently and I wanted to do something a little different, so I decided to celebrate with the state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, AKA North Korea, as my host. Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is part of a chain of 60 restaurants in Asia run by the North Korean government. To be more specific, the restaurant is ran by an arm of the North Korean government named Office 39, which oversees all revenue raising activities for the secretive state. Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, a specialist on North Korea at Tufts University, Boston, told me that, this “includes 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 1970s. The recent financial crisis has led to more hardship and new leader Kim Jong-un is desperate for cash. “My guess is the restaurants raise under $10 million a year” says Professor Lee. “So they are not a critical source of currency for the Kim regime but are nonetheless important to maintain”.
I turned up there in the evening and a couple of my party were there to greet me. The room was dark except for the stage where five beautiful North Korean girls were performing a ritualistic ballet. The music sounded like Jeff Wayne’s "War of the Worlds". The restaurants are staffed by young North Korean women who are slim and pretty as a range of dolls. They seemed to be the outward face of North Korean racialism. In their motherland, mixed babies are aborted. As B R 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 began a performance of breathtaking complexity. The rest of my party had arrived and we were drinking beer and perusing the extensive menu. We ordered plates of shrimp, dumplings and noodles. North Korean specialties such as Kimchi and Dog Meat Casserole were priced way out of my league – perhaps an indication of the DPRK’s desperate need for foreign currency. Is turning the restaurant into a pricey tourist trap as bad as it gets here? “Using the restaurants to launder money is entirely feasible,” says Professor Lee, suggesting that a high turnover and non-sinister looking operation like a restaurant could be used to process money from less legitimate businesses.
I took out my camera and began snapping away. A waitress walked up and made an “x” sign with her index fingers to stop me. It seems that the restaurant carries a lot of the totalitarian baggage of its parent country.
Pyongyang has a number of tourism and hospitality schools. The waitresses train there before being posted abroad. “The girls are only allowed to leave North Korea because they come from politically reliable backgrounds,” says 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 Angkor Wat – a mere 20 kilometers away.
Are the waitresses prisoners or do they love their servitude? Dr Hastings talked to one waitress in China – “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”. While the devastating famine of the late 1990s has ended, North Korea still struggles to feed its people and receives food aid. It seemed a pretty grim irony that the people serving me food may have been doing so to prevent famine amongst their families at home.
The waitresses seemed apprehensive dealing with Westerners. They were happier chatting to their South Korean cousins. They seemed pretty flirty, but, as with seemingly everything, they could have had an ulterior motive. “The primary customers for North Korean restaurants are South Korean” says Dr Hastings. “They have loose lips when drunk”. The waitresses are trained to charm South Korean businessmen to gather information. Most restaurants have a VIP room for the richest and most important customers. “I would be stunned if the VIP rooms were not bugged,” says Dr Lee.
I arranged to interview restaurant manager Miss Gin a few days after my party. When the time came Miss Gin didn’t show up. “Come back tomorrow” the waitress said. The next day Miss Gin failed to materialise again. I called her phone and found that she had somehow lost the ability to speak English.
The final act of the stage show featured a rolling drum solo by a smiling beacon of North Korean racial purity while other girls accompanied on guitar and bass. Our total spend was $100 – extremely expensive for Phnom Penh where you can buy yourself a decent dinner for between $3 and $8. I wonder what it’ll be spent on. Maybe some more nuclear weapons research. Sorry everyone.