Monivong Boulevard is a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Phnom Penh. So it'd be easy to wander by the low-profile restaurant that, at first glance, resembles any other Khmer food joint — if it weren't for the billboard revealing that this restaurant has ties to the most repressive regime in the world. Welcome to "Pyongyang," a little piece of North Korea in Cambodia.
It's actually one of a dozen or more Pyongyang restaurants located all over southeast Asia, all of which are owned and operated by the DPRK regime. Bona fide North Koreans staff the restaurants, which are known for serving up North Korean-style food and fun. They're also widely believed to be laundering money and ferrying intelligence back to Kim Jong-un. TripAdvisor gives the one in Phnom Penh 3 ½ stars.
I make a reservation for 7 PM and am sure to arrive on time — I imagine tardiness is frowned upon by totalitarians. Either despite or because of the fact that the restaurant is run by a secretive dictatorship, the place is punishingly well-lit thanks to a ceiling covered in compact fluorescent bulbs. Or maybe this is to help ensure no sneaky Westerners violate the ban on snapping photos.
A dozen adorable women in matching green pinstriped skirts and tightly bound ponytails — they look more like flight attendants than waitresses — glide from one glass-topped table to the next, chatting gamely with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean diners; my table is the only one with Caucasians, and they mostly ignore us. The walls are adorned with paintings of waterfalls and mountains and tigers. There's a drum kit, a synthesizer, and a sound mixer at the front of the room. They don't serve Korean beer. But they do serve dog.
A friend of mine recommends the "finest beef rips," despite their exorbitant $25 price tag. (A decent dinner in Phnom Penh tends to run between $3 and $8.) So I order the "rips," along with some Pyongyang cold noodle and a Tiger beer. The waitress brings us plastic chopsticks, which is a bad sign according to a woman at our table who teaches English in Seoul. She explains that in South Korea, everyone uses metal chopsticks. That way, if the food is poisoned, the chopsticks change color. So this is how it ends.
The waitresses earn tips just like anyone else, but they don't keep very much of what they make. That's according to Cheena Chestnut Greitens, a researcher at Harvard who has studied North Korea and its overseas restaurants for years. "In North Korea, you're expected to distribute cash back to the center," she says. "If you earn money overseas, you make a 'loyalty offering' to the regime and the Kim family. People might make a couple hundred dollars a month, but the regime takes anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of that — to pay 'expenses.'"
A recently released report from a South Korean research group estimates that workers North Korea exports — the country also sends doctors, nurses, and laborers to China, Russia, and the Middle East — brings in between $150 and $230 million annually to the country.
"Since the mid-2000s, North Korea has expanded its overseas labor presence, and that includes the restaurants," Greitens says. "The elite in Pyongyang [the city] need the cash to buy the goods that sustain the level of luxury in which they live."
As the first couple of dishes arrive, things begin to get weirder. Three of the waitresses emerge from a side door holding microphones and bouquets of flowers. They proceed to do a song-and-dance number that reminds me of South Korean K-pop. They pass out the flowers, bask in hearty applause, and depart, only to reappear minutes later to serve more food. I can't help but wonder if this is all simply a tactic to distract diners from the fact that our chopsticks are incapable of detecting poison.
The entertainment lasts throughout the entire meal, featuring tap dancing, R&B crooning, pirouettes, tambourines with exploding ribbons, and a rock violinist. The food isn't excellent, but it's certainly the only place in town to get authentic North Korean grub. The specialty, Pyongyang cold noodles, is perfectly cooked, and have just the right amount of kick. The kimchi tastes just like the kind I buy in a jar back in the States, and the dumplings taste like … dumplings. The bok choi, simmered in an oyster sauce, is my favorite.
The show closes as a girl in a Mariachi outfit executes a minute-long twirl. As she finishes, a drunk South Korean diner in a G-Star Raw T-shirt leaps onto the stage to deliver a bouquet stuffed with what I assume is a generous tip to his favorite waitress.
After dinner, the North Korean women fan out into the crowd, yukking it up with patrons at every table except ours. So I call over one of the women, whose name is Kim Gyong Hwa. She says she studied music in school and currently lives upstairs from the restaurant, which she says is "nice." I'm glad to hear it, since Restaurant Pyongyang employees are not allowed to leave the property until they go back to North Korea. Kim is headed home next year.
She politely excuses herself and heads back to a table of South Koreans. After all, while the meal and the show may be over, but she may still have a job to do; in addition to being excellent waitresses and fine musicians, the waitresses are reportedly also very skilled at recruiting South Korean customers to become spies for the regime.