The Korea Herald


Popular but secretive, North Korean restaurant keeps the ‘North’ part low-key

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 20, 2012 - 11:31

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PHNOM PEHN (Yonhap News) ― The red wooden gates of 400 Monivong Boulevard are difficult to find if you are not looking for them. Only a sun-bleached sign overhead marks them as the entrance to the compound of Pyeongyang Restaurant, a North Korean chain and one of Phnom Pehn’s most famous dining destinations. It’s also the place that Lee Un-yong and her fellow waitresses call home.

Like many of the women who have worked here, Lee is a transitional employee. Now eight months into her three-year commitment to the restaurant, in many ways her new home is just as secretive and oppressive as the regime from which it originates.

Assumed, but not acknowledged, to be owned by the North Korean government in an effort to raise money for the regime, official statements about the political significance of the establishment are hard to come by. An interview with the management of the restaurant came to an abrupt end when questions about politics arose.

“I don’t want to discuss anything political,” said the woman on the phone, who identified herself as the manager but declined to give her name. “If you want to know the restaurant you can come see it for yourself and try some of our food. Otherwise I have nothing to say.”

Adding to the secrecy are the stone and chain-link that surround the restaurant, preventing peeping eyes from seeing what goes on inside when it is closed. Photography on the premises is strictly controlled and in many cases prohibited, save for a souvenir snapshot with the waitresses. 
Song and dance performance during dinner at Pyeongyang Restaurant (Yonhap News) Song and dance performance during dinner at Pyeongyang Restaurant (Yonhap News)

It all serves as a reminder that, although the staff is allowed to live abroad, this place is really a limbo between the freedom of Cambodia and the oppressive regime they call home. Even in Phnom Pehn they are forced to live a limited existence.

“I don’t really get to travel,” Lee said, when asked if she had the chance to see Angkor Wat in her eight month stay, “but sometimes we go to the market for shopping.”

A typical day for her and her coworkers is busy.

“I study English, do our exercises, prepare the restaurant and practice our show every day,” she said, referring to the song and dance routine that takes place every night at 8 p.m. It’s this show that has brought so much fame to the chain of restaurants.

The girls take turns on stage performing a mix of drumming, bass playing, singing and dancing. The occasional pop song even makes its way onto the mostly traditional set list. When it’s Lee’s turn, she sings a traditional Korean song while another girl plays the keyboard.

In between their performances the women take turns slinging pots of “naengmyeon,” a North Korean cold noodle dish, dog-meat stew and other Korean delicacies to a room full of hungry customers. It’s a scene full of odd juxtapositions.

Plates are adorned with ample portions of food, the likes of which are most certainly not seen by the average North Korean in their famished homeland. Conversation with patrons involves an exchange of stories, many conflicting with the propaganda they have been raised with.

Lee expressed genuine shock when one Korean-American diner told her that Seoul is one of his favorite cities to live in. “Really?” she asked, retelling the story in hurried Korean to one of the other waitresses who then asked “why?”

In the eight years since its opening, the exotic novelty of the restaurant has earned it a fair share of media attention from travel writers and bloggers. Recommendations to dine at the restaurant ought to be taken with caution, however. Though no official statements have ever been released, it is widely rumored that funds earned by the restaurant directly support the North Korean government.

For better or worse, all the media attention has made it a popular tourism destination. It is especially popular among South Koreans, who, until recently, made up the largest proportion of tourists to Cambodia. This might be part of the reason that the “North” part of this Korean restaurant is so toned down. The interior resembles a middle-American Chinese restaurant ― generic, inoffensive and unassuming.

Even after his recent death, there are no obvious homages to late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il or his family in the areas where guests are allowed, though the waitresses express sadness about his passing. “We stopped the restaurant for some days,” Lee said. “That was a very sad thing.”

More subtle forms of propaganda can be found upon closer inspection, however. The waitresses’ names are printed on tiny plastic replicas of the North Korean flag, worn above their hearts. Melodramatic paintings of the North’s natural wonders cover the walls: great prairies, high-tides, and waterfalls.

A particularly grandiose painting rests on the wall by the cashier: a colorful depiction of a tiger, mid-roar, standing on Mount Paekdu, the legendary birthplace of Kim Jong-il.

Even with the propaganda toned down, the restaurant has still seen boilover from political tensions on the peninsula. After the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 and the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island the following November, it was reported that the South Korean Embassy in Cambodia was recommending tour agencies take their groups elsewhere. Though no official statement was ever issued, the restaurant was removed from the itineraries of some tour agencies.

Recently, Cambodia has remained mostly quiet whenever problems arise between the two Koreas, but it has a deep history with the North. King Sihanouk, the former king of Camboida, had a strong friendship with Kim Il-sung. Sihanouk refused to recognize the South Korean government, and North Korea continued to support the Cambodian monarch even after his ouster in 1970. Sihanouk would make frequent visits to North Korea and sometimes stay for months while in exile, served by a lavish Korean staff. When he was reinstated as king in 1991, North Korea provided him the bodyguards. The Cambodian government still shows silent signs of support for the regime including a boulevard in Phnom Pehn named after Kim Il-sung and plans approved for a North Korean cultural center to be built near Angkor Wat.

But whatever tensions existed at the restaurant seem to have disappeared now. On two separate visits the restaurant was near capacity for the evening dinner show. Though the issue seems to have been put aside for the time being, for Lee and her co-workers, life at the restaurant doesn’t change much.

As she clears the tables at the end of the night, an orchestral version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” plays in the background ― the irony of the unsung lyrics lost in translation. But for those who understand, it’s just one more hint to the life of freedom just beyond her reach.