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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.
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.”