Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—The restaurant’s fluorescent lights dim and give way to multicolored spots as an upbeat synthesized tune begins to play. Three waitresses—nearly identical with their red aprons, pale smiling faces, and jet black hair—rush onto the small stage, each clutching a microphone and dancing in unison as they sing the North Korean classic “Pan Gap Sumnida” (“Nice to Meet You”) while scenes from their homeland flash on a television behind them.
This is Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant, part of a pan-Asian chain established in the 1990s that now has about 100 branches scattered across China, Indonesia, Russia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Nepal. Despite functioning like regular—if kitschy—restaurants, they are believed to be a part of Bureau 39, a secretive arm of the Korean Workers’ Party that acquires and launders foreign currency for the cash-strapped Hermit Kingdom through ventures as diverse as agricultural exports, arms sales, and methamphetamine production.
The great irony of the Pyongyang Restaurant chain is that South Koreans are some of their best customers. Cambodia’s original North Korean restaurant opened in Siem Reap in 2002 to cater to the busloads of South Korean tourists descending on the area’s famed Angkor Archaeological Park. Its success led to the opening of a Phnom Penh branch in 2003. There are now two of these North Korean–themed restaurants in Siem Reap and three in the Cambodian capital. South Korea’s Chosun daily newspaper estimates that each restaurant funnels between $100,000 to $300,000 in hard currency back to the Stalinist state each year.
It’s Friday night, and around us, well-heeled Cambodians and South Korean businessmen knock back bottles of soju and Angkor Beer from tables piled high with specialties from above the 38th parallel: Savory Pyongyang cold noodles, pungent dog meat casserole, and viscous pine nut gruel are all on the menu. A shelf near the entrance holds expensive bottles of North Korean liquor—ginseng ($50), mushroom ($50), sea cucumber ($70)—and small boxes of herbal pills ($120 per package!) that a waitress claims will cure anything. At one table near the back of the restaurant, a lone Cambodian bodyguard listens intently to a walkie-talkie while munching on a platter of grilled pork. When a waitress asks him if friends will be joining him, he points upstairs to the VIP karaoke rooms that westerners are barred from entering.
Mandatory military service means that nearly all of the South Korean customers have served in the armed forces. The irony of patronizing a restaurant owned by a regime bent on their destruction seems lost in the boozy haze. The overwhelmingly male crowd appears to be more interested in the pretty young waitresses than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.
The waitresses, all in their 20s, are perfect comrades. Standing next to the tables—they refuse offers to sit down—they politely laugh at jokes, exchange pleasantries, and answer questions with short declarative sentences. The women spurn their drunk customers’ advances with cheery grace, subtly sidestepping attempted gropes so no one loses face. Their well-rehearsed poise, however, lapses when they’re given opportunities to play with diners’ smartphones. Suddenly, devices in hand, plastic smiles loosen and eyes grow wide as they look at photographs of Seoul and beyond. Although Internet access is tightly regulated back home, no one stops them. Mutual curiosities are entertained here, with diners and servers providing each other a glimpse of alien familiarity–people with the same language and history cut off by a half a century of ideology, violence, and political posturing.
After the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, Phnom Penh’s South Korean expat community launched a campaign to dissuade their countrymen from visiting North Korean restaurants. Despite their efforts, the eateries remain popular for their novelty, though the image that curious diners get of their northern neighbors is a meticulously curated one.