Going to North Korea is no easy thing. It’s not somewhere that you can just hop on a plane and go to. Even with North Korea’s recent tourism ventures, not just anybody can go because it’s so pricey. It costs almost $2000 per person for a three night standard package and this doesn’t include all of the other expenses such as the plane ticket to China. But even if you could afford the trip to North Korea, they don’t just accept all tourists. They’re extremely selective and wouldn’t let me in, for instance, because of the work I do here in South Korea for human rights
However, there is a place that you could go to for the North Korean experience. But it’s not in North Korea. It’s in Cambodia, of all places.
It is at a roadside restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia that you will find North Korean waitresses serving dishes and performing the best of North Korean arts. The restaurant is called Pyongyang after the North’s capital and is an ambitious “capitalist experiment” to bring in some more much-needed hard currency. And it seems they make good money with all of the tourists that come to the area that are willing to spend over $100 per person for one meal. And it doesn’t hurt that a great amount of those tourists are South Korean because Koreans are known to spend money generously when they’re traveling. North Korea currently has branches of this restaurant in Bangladesh, Dubai, Laos, and Nepal.
With the death of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un now suddenly has a lot on his hands. 2012 is the year of Kim Il Sung’s centennial birthday and the North Korean government promised that this year would be “a year when an era of prosperity is unfolding.” However, it seems that the only thing that Kim Jong Il bequeathed to his twenty-something son is a dysfunctional government and a whole lot of debt. It’s no wonder that North Korea has business ventures such as this restaurant; they desperately need the money! But enough about money. Let’s talk about this restaurant!
On Pyongyang’s menu, one can find such dishes as the famous Pyongyang nengmyun, barbecued cuttlefish, and a lot of different kinds of kimchi dishes. They also sell products such as North Korean alcohol and snacks that you wouldn’t really eat but more likely keep as a souvenir. Mind you, all of these products demand a hefty amount of US dollars. They are there to make money, after all. But the greatest attraction they have to offer is the group of North Korean waitresses.
These waitresses are not just your average waitress you can find at any old restaurant. They not only bring you your food but you can expect a show just like the ones in North Korea. From choreographed dances to guitar serenades, costumers do get their money’s worth. The women are carefully hand-picked by the government and the women themselves consider it an honor. They’re sent overseas for three year periods and are taught not to talk politics to anyone, whatsoever.
Not much is known about how the restaurants are operated. According to Bertil Lintner, author of the book Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan, such economic ventures were started after Russia and China began to demand in the 1990s that North Korea pay for imported goods in hard currency and not barter goods. These restaurants are a response to those demands to make up for shortage of funds. Lintner claims that the restaurants are controlled by the infamous Bureau 39, North Korea’s “money-making” (and money-laundering) branch of the Worker’s Party.
According to reports from defectors, the eateries are operated through a network of local middlemen who are required to remit a certain amount every year to the coffers in Pyongyang. Kim Myung Ho, a North Korean defector who ran a restaurant in northern China, reported in 2007 that each establishment, affiliated with “trading companies” operated by the government, was forced to make annual fixed payments of between $10,000 and $30,000 back to the North Korean capital. “Every year, the sum total is counted at the business headquarters in Pyongyang, but if there’s even a small default or lack of results, then the threat of evacuation is given,” Kim told reporters from the Daily NK, a North Korean news service run by human rights activists.
Like I mentioned before, many of the tourists that visit the Pyongyang Restaurant are actually South Koreans. Many have described this restaurant as a place where “Koreans go to reunify.” It’s a rare sight of North Koreans and South Koreans mingling together without the overshadowing threat of the government. Inside the restaurant, “politics disappear;” the title of ‘North’ and ‘South’ are dropped and people just become Koreans, one people with the same background.
No matter what the purpose of the restaurants is for the North Korean government, I’d like to view them as a good thing. Through the restaurants, more awareness is raised about North Korea, more people are able to experience the North without having to go all the way there, and most importantly it gives elderly South Koreans with North Korean hometowns a chance to revive their memories of home. Of course it’s not the same as being able to go. But for now, this will have to do.