The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – an area renowned for isolation, shrouding itself in mystery – runs a chain of restaurants throughout Asia. Named after North Korea’s capital city, the restaurants, originally conceived to entice travelling South Korean businessmen hungry for Korean classics like kimchi or northern specialties like Pyongyang cold noodles or dangogi, have emerged in areas near the China-North Korean border, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, and, most recently, Amsterdam. In the words of Australian journalist Sebastian Strangio, who enjoyed a meal at the Pyongyang restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the restaurant is brimming with curious customers, an overwhelming majority of which is South Korean. At Pyongyang Restaurant, customers can get an intriguing view of the lifestyles of North Koreans allowed to work outside of the borders of the DPRK.
Strangio paints a vivid picture of the atmosphere in Pyongyang Restaurant: the North Korean waitresses, all very young, attractive – and tall – not only cheerfully wait tables in bright pink chima jeogori, traditional Korean clothing, but also entertain their guests with musical performances, karaoke, and traditional fan dances. Some of these performances include electric guitars, drums, and an accordion. All the while, a slide show of images of landmarks throughout Pyongyang scroll across a screen behind the performing women whose style of performance seems reminiscent of the famous Mass Games.
Although one expects these women to have the opportunity to experience life in a different country because of the international locations of these restaurants, the women actually work in cities scattered throughout Asia and now in the West for as many as three years before returning to North Korea without ever having explored the world outside of their restaurants. Strangio explains that the 22-year-old waitress he met in Phnom Pehn had been working in Cambodia for six months after leaving her home in Pyongyang, lived above the restaurant, and could not freely leave to sight-see or travel because of the strict regimentation implemented on all of the women who work there.
So, if not to promote cultural exchange and active involvement with neighboring nations, are the intentions of the Pyongyang Restaurants purely economic? Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist, who has worked as a reporter on political issues in Burma, Laos, and North Korea has described the chain of restaurants as one of many undertakings overseas taken by Room 39, a North Korean organization that has worked to collect foreign currency for the North Korean government following North Korea’s economic collapse during the mid-1990s. Therefore, the women who work in the Pyongyang Restaurants work as if they are still in North Korea because they are under the constant supervision of a government organization.
However, their locations abroad pose a threat to the DPRK’s resistance to foreign influence and ideas regardless of the regime’s best efforts to keep the women apart from the local people. In his article, Strangio relates that these women are screened and monitored to the same extent as the staff of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, which actually organizes the leader’s daily routine. Not only are their family backgrounds and loyalties verified, but also more than three generations of their families are considered before women are selected to work abroad. The women even endure “evaluation meetings,” a North Korean practice designed to gauge their loyalty to the Korean Workers Party both inside and outside of the borders of the DPRK.
But how can the regime keep the young waitresses’ curiosities at bay? Even if these women generally come from the “more privileged” upper rungs of North Korean society, what prevents them from an interest in the outside world? Does a strict background check on the women’s family history of loyalty to the regime guarantee that the women will follow orders every step of the way without once wondering what lies outside of the doors of their restaurants and what kind of lives are led by the people who coming for food and entertainment? Perhaps the women who work in Pyongyang Restaurants have not been motivated with an undeniable necessity to defect; therefore, they are comfortable with their lives as loyal instruments of the North Korean regime.
However, every now and then problems arrive that prove that even loyalty cannot forever keep the women hidden away: every now and then restaurants have to close due to problems with the staff; a woman is sent back before her three year duty has come to a close because of her sudden interest in South Korea and defectors; some of the customers take a romantic interest in the waitresses. Many other incidents also occur. Though the women do not escape in spite of such incidents, a slight wind – a change in perspective – moves them, prodding them with the knowledge that there is more than what they have experienced and more that they can experience.