Kingdom Kim's Culinary Outposts
Inside the bizarre world of Asia's North Korean restaurant chain.
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 exiles and human rights activists.
Meanwhile, the DPRK provides the bevy of pale-faced—and politically sanitized—beauties who live and work on the restaurant premises. Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Petersen Institute of International Economics, says that all North Koreans dispatched to work in restaurants abroad are forced to undergo stringent screening for political loyalty. "It is considered a desirable achievement to be selected and have the opportunity to go abroad," he says.
A year ago, the Pyongyang restaurants in Cambodia and Thailand suddenly closed their doors, only to reopen again after a six-month hiatus. Lintner cited an Asian diplomat in Bangkok saying the restaurants, like all "capitalist" enterprises, were hit hard by the global economic crisis, but locals familiar with the establishment in Phnom Penh offered another explanation. One worker at a nearby business said Pyongyang closed after a dispute with a Cambodian customer who tried to take one of its North Korean waitresses out for "drinks" after dinner.
If true, it would not be the first time. In 2006 and 2007, Daily NK reported several incidents in which waitresses from North Korean restaurants in China's Shandong and Jilin provinces tried to defect, forcing the closure of the operations. Kim Myung Ho added that two or three DPRK security agents live onsite at each restaurant to "regulate" the workers and that any attempts at flight result in the immediate repatriation of the entire staff.
Visitors to Pyongyang can come and go as they please, eating their fill and pondering the prospect of a freer, more prosperous North Korea. But for all their smiles, the young women staffing these far-flung outposts of the reclusive state are soldiers of juche, performing their nightly ritual under constant surveillance.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.