The website Daily NK describes the women who staff these North Korean restaurants as being hand-picked from elite Pyongyang families for their beauty, talent, language skills, and political loyalty. All are said to undergo rigorous ideological education before being sent overseas. The waitresses, who come on three-year contracts, live onsite, serving lunch and dinner seven days a week. Government security agents are also reportedly placed within each restaurant, and the waitresses never venture out unescorted. A friend who visited one of the Siem Reap branches claims that the waitresses he spoke to had never even seen nearby Angkor Wat–Cambodia’s main tourist-draw. The women are able to send money home to their families who live as virtual (albeit privileged) hostages until their daughters return to Pyongyang.
While rare, defections have happened—including reported cases in China, Nepal, and Cambodia. In each instance, the offending restaurants were temporally shut down as the entire staff was repatriated and replaced.
Citing anonymous “U.S. and western intelligence officials,” the Washington Free Beacon recently reported that the waitresses double as intelligence operatives trained to extract corporate secrets from inebriated South Korean businessmen. The piece goes on to claim that the restaurants are espionage hotbeds frequented by both North Korean agents and American spooks hoping to enlist informants. For Americans, after all, such restaurants are some of the few portals they have into the DPRK. While such claims remain dubious, they might explain why the Phnom Penh waitresses enforce a strict no photo policy—I only managed to snap a few shots before being told with polite firmness to put my camera away.
Our waitress, Lee Jun Mei—I’ve changed her identity here, but her real name was spelled out in Korean and English on a badge decorated in the colors of the North Korean flag—hasn’t been working in Cambodia for very long. While the 21-year-old is shy with the men at our table, she seems to instantly develop a rapport with my American roommate—one of the only women in the restaurant.
In cheery but broken English, Jun Mei complains that her feet hurt from wearing heels all day and that she doesn’t like dealing with these hordes of drunken men. She tells my friend that Cambodia is too hot and that she misses Pyongyang and her family. The woman seems rather scandalized when my roommate explains our living situation.
“You stay with man?” she exclaims, giggling nervously. “And not married!”
When I ask Jun Mei where she likes to go in her free time, she becomes evasive. Direct questions—don’t you think Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace is beautiful? What’s your favorite place in the city?—only elicit vague mumbling replies.
I leave Jun Mei with my roommate and stroll around while one of the waitresses sings a nearly unrecognizable rendition of Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol.” After her, others sing in Korean, Khmer, and Chinese. Such karaoke-esque acts are interspersed with dance routines and instrumental performances: a rapid-fire violin, an oom-pa-pa accordion, and a beautifully played gayageum, each accompanied by synthesized keyboard beats. The waitresses change clothing between sets, coming out in tight-fitting dresses, flowing robes, and traditional hanbok gowns in the same vibrant colors of the Buddhist flag. After each act, they quickly change and go back to delivering more dishes. It’s less of a concert than a kind of Pyongyang’s Got Talent. And they actually are talented, albeit in a heavily scripted sort of way.
The food at Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant is good if overpriced—more than double what a similar meal would cost at many of the city’s expat-run South Korean eateries. The cold noodles and hearty seafood pancake are my favorites. We avoid most meats (dog casserole for $28!), though the pine nut gruel is a hit with my companions. Perhaps, like the whole dining experience, it’s the quintessentially North Korean novelty that does it for them. To me, however, it lives up to its billing as gruel—thick, viscous, and almost completely flavorless.
A five-piece band caps the night’s show. On guitar, bass, accordion, keys, and drums, the waitresses rock through an original number that crescendos into a pounding drum solo. It’s frenetic, precise, and oddly melodic. The performance sends the crowded restaurant’s now-drunk diners into fits of cheering and applause.
And then it ends. The fluorescent lights come back on. The waitresses put away their instruments, change their clothes, and go back to serving dishes and drinks.
We order another round, then get the bill. I ask Jun Mei one last question: “Do you like Cambodia?” She looks down silently and shakes her head, “No.”