Breaking bread with North Korea

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The World

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — What has proven an impossible task for Western diplomats is as easy as securing a table for two in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh.

Access to the police state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, may be prohibitively difficult, but in Phnom Penh, diners can sample an elaborate combination of North Korean food, culture and dance at one of its state-controlled restaurants.

The North Korean government has set up hundreds of branches of the restaurant throughout Asia, providing tasty traditional fare alongside a dinner show of music and dancing. All in all, it is an attraction that doubles as one of myriad sources, legitimate and otherwise, of essential foreign currency for the economically stagnant regime.

Diners at Pyongyang II, opened in Phnom Penh in 2003 as a sister branch to the successful Pyongyang I in the tourist hub of Siem Reap, are ushered into an austere, flood-lit setting of formica tables and walls decorated in reproduction prints depicting epic nature motifs. On one wall, there is a poster of a mammoth wave, the same one that appears behind images of "Supreme Leader" kim Jong Il on state television when he recieves foreign diplomats.

waitress singing with electric guitar
Waitress at Pyongyang II in Phnom Penh serenades restaurant-goers.
(Brendan Brady/GlobalPost)

Donning traditional dresses and covered in white make-up, pretty, young uniformly-shaped waitresses glide to deliver dishes between music-and-dance sets. Some play the violin and piano, others belt out or lip synch, with the aid of a heavily synthesized sound system, sentimental Korean classics. All dance in a synchronized flourish of stomping and twirling.

Japanese and South Korean diners – mostly expatriates or visitors on business – coo and clap and pound beer and whisky until they find themselves singing along. The occasional Western expat or tourist can also be spotted, soaking in a kitsch night out that they will be sure to relay to all their friends back home.

The truly enamored remain late, when the karaoke floor opens to patrons. They can choose from thousands of Korean and international tunes, including American classics like “Born in the USA”, which an inebriated American expat improvised as “Born in the DPRK” on a recent evening, much to the confusion of the waitresses.

The food is by all accounts delicious. North Korean specialties like Pyongyang cold noodles and are offered, as are favorites found across the entire Korean peninsula: a variety of kimchi, spicy bean curd and grilled eel – all to be washed down with a potency elixir that guarantees “improved performance” or a selection of top-shelf liquors, for which the Supreme Leader is said to have a supreme predilection.

According to Bertil Lintner, author of “Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korean under the Kim Clan,” the restaurants bring in much-needed foreign currency to the isolated Stalinist state, where the local currency, the won, can’t otherwise be converted.

He says North Korea turned to capitalist enterprises in Asia in the early 90s when the Soviet Union and China demanded Pyongyang pay for goods in hard currency rather than a barter system.

The restaurants, according to Lintner, are part of this chain of trading companies controlled by Bureau 39, the cash-generating arm of the Korean Workers’ Party that he says is used to launder proceeds from illicit commercial activity.

A 2007 article in the Daily NK, an online newspaper run by rights activists in Seoul, cited a defector who ran a similar restaurant in China as saying that each establishment affiliated with the government is forced to contribute between $10,000 and $30,000 to the state.

For its part Cambodia welcomes the restaurants, as it preserves its kinship with the reclusive state – an iron-clad union forged more than four decades ago when North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung and Cambodia’s then-king Norodom Sihanouk came to each other’s aid at critical moments in their respective tumultuous histories.

The two leaders met in 1965, in Jakarta, at the 10TH anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of countries pledging to remain outside of the Western and Eastern bloc’s spheres of influence.

“I think that the relationship between His Majesty and the late President Kim Il Sung and the current leadership in North Korea is unique because it is not based in ideology, strategic or trade interests,” according to Julio Jeldres, the official biographer of Norodom Sihanouk.

“I believe that for the late President Kim Il Sung friendship was paramount in determining the foreign policy of North Korea. Those that behaved like trusted friends of North Korea were in return treated as such against all odds.”

After the Jakarta meeting, Cambodia gave its diplomatic recognition to North Korea and withdrew it from South Korea. North Korea subsequently risked the ire of the entire Eastern bloc when, in 1979, after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, it supported the Cambodian resistance movement fighting against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

The leaders’ alliance has included deeply personal gestures, as well. In 1974, Kim Il Sung built a 60-room lake palace for Sihanouk outside of the capital city of Pyongyang – the home where Sihanouk fled in 1979 after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. And since 1993, when Sihanouk was reinstalled as king, his most trusted escorts – his bodyguards – have been North Korean.

To this day, the allegiance between the two countries has been maintained through formal, albeit limited, diplomatic channels.

In a 2007 official letter to North Korea, Sihanouk’s son and the current Cambodian king, Norodom Sihamoni, said of the Stalinist regime’s founder: “He offers an irreplaceable example of solidarity and a fraternity between all nations and people in search of peace, liberty and justice.”

But while the leaders profess great affection between their countries, North Korea has restricted the relationship to the upper echelons.

The waitresses at Pyongyang II — who are reported to have been selected in their homeland through a strict screening process engineered to ensure their loyalty to their government – oblige diners by posing for pictures. However, when casually asked if she walks around Phnom Penh, a waitress responded that she did not.

Cash-carrying diners can step in for an evening of entertainment and culinary delights. But these women are, after all, assiduously manning an outpost, from which there is no way out.

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