It's a tad unsettling to watch North Korean propaganda while you're eating. It's even more unsettling to have your gaze interrupted by a group of North Korean party officials IRL, entering to dine in the same room.
I'm in Dandong, the largest Chinese city on the North Korean border, where only the winding Yalu River separates the two countries. Cargo trucks invariably rumble across the sole bridge between them, which I can see from the windows of the restaurant I'm in—lit along the Chinese side, eerily dark towards Korea.
Here, North Korean restaurants are the norm. Korean characters run below Chinese on local signage. North Korean flags hang above restaurant entryways. Street vendors hawk North Korean goods to curious tourists—old won notes, ginseng, cigarettes.
Tourists, mainly Chinese, line up at viewfinders to gaze into the other side. A Chinese grandma stands beside them, pointing out the North Korean guard tower in which you can see two North Korean men directing their gazes right back at you.
But in the dining room, the real show happens.
I'm stirring cold lo mein noodles and poking at grilled beef while Kim Jong-Un makes speeches on the flat-screen TV above me. In one frame, he's holding a baby; in another he is congratulating newlyweds, or greeting happy schoolchildren. A narrator, voice quivering with excitement, talks over clips of loyal citizens bowing and weeping with joy in the Great Leader's presence.
It's all lo-fi, like a low-budget 90s music video, and when I'm not watching the screen, I stab at potato pancakes with my chopsticks and order another Taedonggong, the beer proudly labeled, "Made in DPR Korea."
The propaganda isn't playing for kitsch purposes, though. I'm dining in Korea Hong, one of the many restaurants on Dandong's waterfront owned by North Koreans. This is as close as you can get to dining in Pyongyang without actually setting foot in North Korea.
And yes, despite headlines about famine and crippling poverty, there are people—the wealthiest—in North Korea who go out to eat.
Pyongyang has scattered its restaurants across the globe —state-owned North Korean restaurants are in China, Cambodia, Thailand, and more. But the highest concentration of them outside of the hermit country itself is on its border.
"These restaurants are indeed a fair representation of restaurants in Pyongyang, but only the top Pyongyang restaurants, their analogue to the Michelin three-stars level," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korean scholar who released his book, The Real North Korea, last year.
From the outside, the restaurants all look eerily similar: posters of Pyongyang on the sides, North Korean flags hanging above and, most intriguing, a beautiful young woman in traditional dress in the doorway.
Inside, you can taste the food for which North Korea claims to be famous (although I'd argue their lack of food is better known): bulgogi (grilled beef), bean soup, and cold noodles.
There are also plenty of recognizable dishes from South Korea—bibimbap, barbecue, kimchi. The Korean Peninsula isn't that big, after all. The largest difference between Northern and Southern Korean cuisines is North Korea's isolation from Western influence.
But it's like eating in South Korea 50 years ago.
I order a plate of roast beef garnished with red and green peppers, potato pancakes garnished with—yet again—red and green peppers, and cold noodles. The meat has a nice peppery flavor but is a bit too tough; the potato pancakes are also nice, but bland; and the cold noodles are really cold noodles. An acquired taste.
Still, I'm not here for the fine cuisine. I'm here to witness North Korea's spectacular show of propaganda.
"Are you North Korean?" I ask my waitress.
"Yes," she responds.
"Do you miss it?"
"Do you like China?"
"Where in North Korea are you from?"
The waitresses don't talk much. They're beautiful. When I entered, they stood in a near-military formation in matching dresses by the entrance, waiting to serve.
Travel abroad is a privilege granted to a select few in North Korea, and those who do travel are chosen both for their good looks and social standing.
"Most of them are waitresses in Pyongyang who go abroad for a bit, but then go back to Pyongyang," says Simon Cockerell, who leads regular tours to the DPRK.
Sure enough, the next waitress I talked to says she's from Pyongyang. When I ask if she misses it, she responded, "Yes."
But then things get weirder. A group of older men enters wearing the red lapel pins identifying them as North Korean party members. Some waitresses usher them upstairs, then downstairs again one minute later.
In Dandong, I'm in enemy territory. In these parts, there are frequent memorials to "The War Against American Aggression and Aiding Korea," a war my Chinese friend once asked if I'd heard of.
"Yeah," I said. "We just call it the Korean War."
The men's rough, dark skin and wrinkles paint a different picture of North Korea than our waitresses' pale skin and fresh faces. It makes me wonder: What happens to these women when they're no longer young and beautiful? Are they shipped home to the Pyongyang they claim to miss so much?
At one point during the meal, I notice a waitress pause in front of the screen. She stands there motionless for several minutes, watching with rapt attention the same propaganda she must have seen hundreds of times.
It seems crazy to think that may have been part of an act, but in a country so known for its far-reaching propaganda efforts—not to mention in a restaurant on the border serving eight party officials, I wouldn't be surprised.
At the second North Korean restaurant I visit, Kim Jong-il's For the Victory of the Socialist Cause is displayed in a glass case alongside copies in other languages. Above it, another flat screen TV blares propaganda. The actual video quality still isn't great, but hey—everywhere seemed to have a pretty nice TV.
Another gown-wearing hostess, another painting of a North Korean landscape on the wall, another platter of OK—but not great—meat.
Even here, just meters from North Korean soil, mystery continues to shroud the country. And it's not just the taciturn waitresses. Each time I ask a local if he or she ever traveled to the other side, I am answered with a balk.
"They're poor," I'm told. Or, another time, "Nobody wants to go there."
My cab driver is no exception. Jang Xu says he had no desire to cross the river, and that no one he knows ever did. He's lived his whole life in Dandong, and still he's never been to the other side.
In school, he studied English, not Korean. And he'd only met North Koreans at the same restaurants I'd been visiting, never in a social setting.
This is all while he drives us along the river, my attention occasionally straying to watch a man on the other side herd his sheep, or a woman in a red coat ride her bike.
The language barrier makes it difficult for me to understand Jang Xu. But as he pulls up to my hotel and I open the door to get out, he signals to me that he had one last thing to say.
"I'm happy in Dandong," he says.
Yeah, I'd be pretty happy to be on this side of the river, too.