RESTAURANTS IN NORTH KOREA
The majority of the restaurants that foreigners eat at are in the hotels. Arrangements can be made to visit other eateries patronized by the Pyongyang elite. Ordinary North Korean don't generally eat out at such places but do eat out at more working-class-style places.. You can get Chinese, European, Korean, Japanese, and Russian food in Pyongyang. Some hotel restaurants become bars with music in the night. A typical US$10 lunch at the restaurant at Kumgang mountain features steamed crab, dumplings and bibimbap.
Okryukwan noodle house is regarded as one of the best places to get cold North Korean style noodles. It is a huge place with 3,800 seats. In 1999, it became one of the first North Korean enterprises to open a branch in South Korea. Using buckwheat and utensils shipped from Pyongyang, it was so busy that it turned away as many as 3,000 customers a day. One man who waited in line only to get inside after they were sold out told Newsweek, “I will come back because this is much easier than going all the way to Pyongyang.”
There are a few restaurants in Pyongyang that specialise in dog meat: dog ribs, dog steak and particularly dog soup. In the south such restaurants can also be found but they tend be low-profile, under-the-radar places due to international criticism of dog eating. In the North dog meat cuisine is more open and viewed as a source of pride and sign of national identity. Pyongyang House of Sweet Meat, the largest dog specialty restaurant in Pyongyang, serves a dozen dog dishes, including ribs, hind legs and boiled dog skin. [Source: Associated Press, July 27, 2018]
The Chongryu Hotpot Restaurant is nearly always on the itinerary. It’s a pleasant place where you make your own hotpot dish on little individual gas stoves. There’s a second branch of this restaurant housed in a boat-shaped restaurant overlooking the Potong River by the ice rink. Yonggwang (“Glory”) Restaurant is said to have some of the best Chinese food in North Korea. [Source: Lonely Planet]
There are now a number of semi-private restaurants in Pyongyang. Among other things they offer fried chicken, pizza, sushi, and burgers. A burger costs around US$1.50; a 9-inch pizza less than US$15. Pyongyang has a couple of Japanese-style conveyor-belt sushi restaurants. One Chinese businessman told the Los Angeles Times: "My impression of having foreign food [at Pyongyang's restaurants] is that the service is exceptional, and the ingredients are all very fresh — unlike China, where there's so much low-quality meat and vegetables." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2017]
Andrei Lankov wrote in NK News: “The restaurant scene in Pyongyang is thriving. It is never a problem to find a really good meal if you can afford it – and you know where to look. The newer, semi-private eateries tend to keep a low-profile, and often have their windows covered with heavy curtains. The signboards are also small, if not absent, so outsiders would have few clues of the luxury inside. Most new restaurants have private rooms used for closed banquets of the bureaucrats and new rich - which are closely connected but somewhat different groups. In some cases they do not limit themselves to gastronomical pleasures: several places have a reputation for doubling as elite brothels. This was indirectly confirmed by official North Korean documents recently: when Jang Song Taek was purged in December 2013, the indictment mentioned both his fondness for private rooms in the expensive restaurants and his dalliances with women. [Source: Andrei Lankov for NK News, The Guardian, June 11, 2014]
“All these pleasures might appear cheap for a visiting foreigner, but for the average North Korean restaurants are prohibitively expensive. A dinner in a regular upmarket restaurant would cost about US$7-10 (excluding alcohol), but the most expensive places charge around US$30-40. To appreciate how out of reach this is, remember that the average monthly salary of a university professor in North Korea is about 80 cents. In most cases, the consumers pay in foreign currency, usually Chinese yuan, which has long been a currency of choice in the up-market North Korean shops.
“Pyongyang has its share of restaurants serving foreign cuisine - one can enjoy Japanese sushi and assorted Chinese dishes as well as European-style food. A local Pyongyang pizzeria serves Italian dishes which can be eastern while listening to fashionable western music. Near Juche Tower the affluent and well-connected (as well as foreigners) can enjoy a great variety of beers in a pub with its own micro-brewery. The connoisseurs have assured me that the quality equals the best European microbreweries.Yet it seems that North Korean-style cuisine still reigns supreme. The Korean food on offer in the North is different from the fare that can be found in the South. I prefer the Northern version, finding it less spicy and far more varied than its Southern counterpart. As for the quality, an American of Russian origin who had spent long time in Pyongyang once said: "I cannot recall a single case when I had a bad meal in a Pyongyang restaurant."
“The two most well-known old North Korean restaurants are Okryugwan and Ch'ongryugwan. Both first appeared in the 1960s to showcase North Korea's alleged prosperity - those days are still remembered in the North as days of lost affluence. These restaurants are also seen as living museums devoted to traditional Korean cuisine. As a result, chefs are sometimes sent to the countryside to collect recipes and study traditional ways of cooking. In an average North Korean high-end eatery many of the dishes on offer clearly have Russian origins. Both Okryugwan and Chonryugwan remain state-owned enterprises, but this is slightly unusual nowadays: over the last decade or so a large number of smaller restaurants have begun to pop up. These newer restaurants, while still technically registered as government-owned, are actually run by private investors. They seem to be doing very well - perhaps better than their state-managed rivals. Traditionally, the large international hotels also had restaurants which catered for the guests as well as to those lucky few North Koreans who were allowed there. These old restaurants still operate, but it seems that the newly opened rivals have pushed them aside to some degree.
Dishes Offered at Pyongyang's Restaurants
Andrei Lankov wrote in NK News: “If we look at the menu of those restaurants which specialise in the Korean cuisine, we discover that many of the dishes are different from what one can get in a typical South Korean restaurant. To start with, the North Korean variety of haute cuisine has been strongly influenced by the traditions of Russian cuisine. In an average North Korean high-end eatery many of the dishes on offer clearly have Russian origins. This is obvious to the present author, being a Russian, but probably not to the average North Korean customer. For example, these restaurants serve Russian-style heavy salads that are flooded with mayonnaise and other similar oily and fatty sauces. The "potato salad" is a common feature in North Korean restaurants' menu, but few Russians would fail to recognise its actual origin as "olivier salad" ubiquitous in Russian eateries. [Source: Andrei Lankov for NK News, The Guardian, June 11, 2014]
“Of course, the North Korean elite likes to feast on meat. In the South it is beef that is most coveted. In the North, beef is simply beyond the reach of almost everyone. Technically North Koreans are banned from eating beef because cows and oxen are used as draft animals not a source of animal protein (you don't eat your tractors, do you, the logic goes.).
“Like South Koreans, people in the North are big fans of the barbecue. But instead of fresh rib meats (known as kalbi in the South), North Koreans tend to prefer marinated varieties (known as pulgogi, still popular in the South, but less so). As with South Korea, North Koreans grill their meat themselves over a charcoal fire or small gas stove installed in the tables at the restaurant. Another North Korean dish is sinsollo, which is somewhat reminiscent of South Korea's shabu-shabu. In the restaurant, customers are supplied with a pile of raw vegetables, meat and dumplings, as well as with a pan filled with water and a coal fire that heats the pan). You boil the food in the water.
Good Budget-Friendly Restaurants in Pyongyang
Alek Sigley wrote in NK News: As as a foreign student at Kim Il Sung University, I’ve discovered a number of excellent places to dine in the city. My friends and I have a custom of trying several new restaurants each week.They are sometimes not far from our home in Taesong District, and at other times further afield. By now I estimate that I have tried almost a hundred different restaurants in Pyongyang. Our ordering strategy usually involves asking the staff for recommendations on what their specialties are and what is popular, as well as looking for unique items on the menu. Here I introduce five of my all-time favorites — all restaurants which are not on the tourist circuit that we’ve only been able to enter as long-term foreign residents. [Source: Alek Sigley, NK News, Tongil Tours, June 20, 2019; Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University]
“1) Ryongbuk Shop is located in Ryongbuk-dong in Taesong District, not too far from the main gate of Kim Il Sung University. The menu is eclectic, offering everything from Chinese dry hotpot (US$9 small/US$13.50 large) to pizza. We had the dry hotpot, which was just as delicious and authentically spicy as what I’d had in China. The restaurant does a great job of Korean classics such as the roast pork belly (US$4), roast beef belly (US$6), and grilled beef rib (US$15). The pizza (US$10) is decent and comes in nine flavors, including pine nut with olive and potato cream pizza. We still haven’t dared to try the fruit pizza though. Other dishes have a more Japanese flavor.
“2) Taesong Heaven Lake Shop is in another plainly adorned building away from the main road, a little bit further down Ryomyong Street from Ryongbuk Shop. It contains a shop on the first floor and two separate restaurants and a bar on the second and third. It serves a truly amazing block tofu, which arrives freshly steamed in this elaborate box. The restaurant also serves other interesting dishes such as curry pasta with capsicum, sausage slices, hard-boiled quail egg, and powdered cheese. Also exceptional is the medicinal steamed chicken rice, which is basically a samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) without the soup and a full grown chicken instead of a young one, and an ample amount of rice.
“3) Mansudae Restaurant is located in the heart of Changjon Street, the first high-rise residential complex to be built under Kim Jong Un in 2012. It’s a stone’s throw away from the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, and part of a cluster of upmarket shops and restaurants in this area. Mansudae Restaurant is a little bit less kitsch than many of the other restaurants in its price range. The first time I stepped in I felt as if I’d been transported to an upmarket restaurant in Beijing or Shanghai. This restaurant is on the pricy side at about US$15 to US$20 per person. But you get what you pay for with some of the finest gourmet delights you’ll ever have in North Korea. We were recommended the steamed buns with a topping consisting of stir-fried vegetables—cucumber, bracken fern, bean sprouts, and mushroom. I think of it as a Sino-Korean hamburger that one cuts and fills oneself (the buns feel very Chinese but the fern gives it some distinct Koreanness). Gochuchang chilli sauce can be added for spice.
“4) The Cooking Festival Hall Fast Food Restaurant is near Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory. On the first floor is a North Korean-style fast food restaurant which serves the people with cheap and delicious Korean fast food. One simply goes up to the counter and picks up one’s food cafeteria style to take to one’s table. Dishes that require preparation and beers will be brought out by a waitress. Prices are advertised in Korean won and are very affordable. A pork hamburger (which uses an English loan word) costs 3,500 won (~US$0.40). The delectable mutton meatball skewers, which come wrapped in sausage, are 5,000 won (~US$0.50). Fist-sized dumplings are a mere 1,000 won (~US$0.15). Most of the food is deep fried and tends to be a bit greasy, but is delicious nonetheless. You just wouldn’t want to eat it every day for your arteries’ sake.
“5) Unjong Comprehensive Service Centre Foreign Dishes Restaurant is across the road from Mansudae Restaurant in Changjon Street The Korean-style beef rib stew was very good, although different from what I was used to in South Korea. In comparison, it had a much thicker soup which was considerably heavier on the garlic. But the most surprising dish was this cheese fried rice. We ordered it because it sounded somewhat out there, and were not wholly expecting it to work, but to our surprise it really did! The savory umami flavor of the parmesan cheese balanced out the greasiness of the fried rice quite well.
North Korean Restaurant Near the Russian Border.
Darmon Richter visited Rason near the Russian border in northeastern North Korea in 2013. On getting a meal there he wrote : “That night we settled down for a meal at a private dining room in the Kum Yong Company Restaurant. It's one of Rason's tourist-friendly eateries, by which I mean that the service and surroundings had been so carefully and thoroughly Westernised, as to give little or no impression of how real North Koreans live. I guess the same could be said for five-star hotels the world over, though.
“One member of the group was celebrating a birthday, and the cake was the first thing to reach our table. This was followed by the usual selection of hot and cold platters (kimchi, salad, fried eggs, battered meat and bean sprouts) while the kitchen prepared the crabs we had bought from the market earlier.
“In the corner of the room, a small television set was doing all it could to keep us abreast of important current affairs. The news presenter - an impassioned middle-aged woman with immaculate hair - was talking about a potential attack from South Korea, about US manoeuvres on the Korean Peninsula. Suddenly I remembered that I was in a country threatening to launch nuclear warheads against its neighbours, and that the whole world was holding its breath to see what the next days would bring.
“The news programme came to an end, and was replaced by a film in which a Korean girl roamed the mountains in a fierce storm, looking for her lost goats. The waitress brought more beers, shots of the local rice wine known as Soju, and someone passed me a joint. I had already forgotten about the nuclear war.”
Dining at a North Korean Restaurant in Beijing
Dining at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing or some other foreign country probably fits the stereotype of North Korean restaurant better than ones in North Korea. Leslie Nguyen-Okwu wrote in Ozy: “With her porcelain skin and glazed eyes, the stiff hostess at the Hae Dang Hwa Restaurant nearly blends in with the decor, until I notice her hand slowly beckon me from above. Upstairs, the massive interior has all the usual trappings of an upscale eatery — polished plates and Botoxed smiles — except the noodles are cold and the waitresses are even colder. This is my short sojourn into North Korea. [Source: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu,Ozy, May 8, 2016]
“Well, almost. I’m more than 500 miles away from Pyongyang in one of Beijing’s finest North Korean restaurants. Hae Dang Hwa is a favorite haunt for visiting diplomats hailing from the Hermit Kingdom, since the brooding Embassy of North Korea is located just around the corner. Even more unsettling, it’s owned and operated by the world’s most shunned government and sworn mortal enemy of my own mother country. Apparently, the North Korean government runs more than 130 restaurants like Hae Dang Hwa to remit revenue back to Pyongyang.
“My friend can’t help but gawk at the glossy waitresses, who are allegedly handpicked by the government, escorted to work every day and rotated out every three years. By day, they stomp around in 3-inch heels, primped and polished in formfitting dresses. But by night, they double as performers and dancers who belt out karaoke lyrics and play traditional instruments for all to enjoy.
“Waitress Clone No. 1 guides my friend and me to a table and gingerly places a white napkin in my lap. Nearby, a group of stern black suits, all sporting red lapel pins that bear the face of their fearless leader, Kim Jong-un, get up to leave. Yes, those are dignitaries and everyone here is North Korean, the waitress tells me with a pained smile and in perfect Mandarin (not a lick of English is spoken here). But I don’t hear her at first. I’m too busy trying to decipher the menu full of “Steamed East Ocean Hairy Crab,” “Bullfrog With Pickled Pepper” and “Dog Meat Hot Pot” — so-called delicacies that are all fermented, braised or steamed by a master chef in the back who honed his cooking chops in Japan. I opt for the slightly safer choices of deep-fried shrimp balls with tea leaves, black and slimy Pyongyang noodles and the classic spicy kimchi. The fanciest schmanciest dishes here easily hit the US$90 range — about three times more than the average monthly salary back in North Korea.
“Waitress Clone No. 2 brings out the dishes in haste, which were less than stellar in taste and presentation. But no matter, I’m not here for the cuisine. I hear that the staff is tight-lipped about anything that’s not on the menu. So I ponder which sensitive question could cross the line: Do you recommend the pork or the turtle? ...After 40 minutes, I instead inquire — “Where is the restroom?” — which Waitress Clone No. 3 must escort me to.
American-Style Fast-Food Comes to Pyongyang
An American-style restaurant called Samtaeseong diner — said to be the first of kind opened in Pyongyang in June 2009. Among the items on the menu are "minced beef with bread" — a hamburger. Malcolm Moore wrote in The Telegraph: “The isolated Communist state has long banned what it calls Western or US "imperialist influences" on its people. But there was only so long it could hold out against the temptations of fast food. [Source: Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph, July 26, 2009]
“The restaurant was opened with the help of a Singaporean company, according to the Choson Sinbo, a North Korean newspaper operating out of Japan. The newspaper added that the restaurant also serves waffles and draught beer, and is planning to introduce hot dogs and croissants to its menu, but with Korean names.
“All of its burgers, whether made of minced beef, fish or vegetables, come with lashings of kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage that Koreans prize. Minced beef and bread costs US$1.70 (£1.03), roughly the same price as a McDonald's cheeseburger in the UK but almost half the daily income of an average North Korean. The average wage in North Korea last year was just under £650. In March, the Choson Sinbo said Kim Jong-il had also ordered the opened of the country's first Italian restaurant, with pizza on the menu.
In 2017, Simon Cockerell said: "There are more Italian restaurants than there are Chinese restaurants in Pyongyang: three. The first place to serve pizza there was Pyolmuri café. Then, around 2008, an Italian restaurant opened that was called… Italian Restaurant. The Korean chef trained in Italy. It was opened with foreign assistance and it was rather good.There are burger restaurants, too. They do have market forces in Pyongyang — one particular burger place opened once but no one ever went there, so it closed. It's easy for people to see everything done in North Korea as everything 'done by' North Korea. When someone opens a burger restaurant, it's always, 'Kim Jong-Un has opened a burger restaurant,' but they are opened by business people motivated by profit.
"At these 'fast' food places, the food isn't ready when you go in; they have racks behind the servers but never anything on them. A long-lasting meal is normal in North Korea and most Pyongyang people have a two-hour lunch break. You can find burgers all over Pyongyang now. If you had money, you could open up pretty much anything in the city, although you probably couldn't open a place called something like Uncle Sam's All-American Steak House. That might be a step too far."
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “On Air Koryo, North Korea's state airline, flight attendants are known to serve one thing, and one thing only: a burger as mysterious as the secretive country itself. The burger is always served cold, and always on a paper doily. Inside the bun is a piece of unidentified meat, a slice of processed cheese, a dash of shredded cabbage or a lonely lettuce leaf, and a dollop of sweet, brown sauce...Air Koryo also offers a vegetarian option — the same burger, but with a tomato slice instead of meat. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2017]
The Koryo burger has been described as "the worst thing I've ever eaten" by Western social media users and been featured in numerous Instagram feeds. It has "gained cult status among passengers," the British tabloid Daily Mail remarked in 2015. The Beijing-based writer Alec Ash said Air Koryo burger was “the worst example of soft power I've ever tasted." People familiar with burger ask why the doily (a lace mate) and what kind of meat is it?
“The burger is "huge" in terms of public fascination, said Cockerell."It's something that people are absolutely blown away by. And it's a piece of meat between two buns." He said the meat is chicken. The Air Koryo office in Beijing said yes they do "normally" serves burgers but would not confirm the type of meat.
Cockerell said: "The only time I saw someone be sick on a plane was on an Air Koryo flight. But I think it was down to the passenger not having flown before, rather than because they ate a Koryo burger.Having said that, it's not very nice and it's not clear what kind of meat it is. Probably not dog. Nobody flies Air Koryo for the food, but I've probably eaten about 30 of them so far, and only when very hungry. Most North Koreans have never flown, and all who have flown have travelled on Air Koryo. The vegetarian option on the airline is 'don't eat the burger.'" [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Muchies, February 2016, Vice.com, January 11, 2017]
McDonald's in North Korea?
In 2018, a few days before the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore, Caitlin Dewey wrote in the Washington Post: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may allow a "Western hamburger franchise" into the country as a show of goodwill to the United States, according to an intelligence report described by U.S. officials to NBC. That follows remarks by South Korean adviser Chung-in Moon in April 2018, who said that North Korea might be interested in welcoming a McDonald's as tensions ease. [Source: Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post, June 4, 2018]
“McDonald's has long been seen as a symbol of Western culture and capitalism - particularly in communist countries. And it's expansion into China and Russia was seen as a landmark in the 1990s. "This has happened with a number of different communist cultures," said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center and the managing editor of 38 North, an academic news site about North Korea. "Once they start to get different points of contact with the West, it changes their views - and it usually starts with McDonald's or Coca-Cola."
“When Moscow got its first franchise in 1990, Russians waited in line for hours to eat at what USA Today called "this city's new symbol of capitalism."Not long after its Russian debut, McDonald's began popping up in Beijing and Shenzhen. Chinese customers hated the food, ethnographer Yunxiang Yan found, but loved the aura of prosperity and progress. "In the eyes of Beijing residents," he wrote in 1997, "McDonald's represents Americana and the promise of modernization."
“Town, of 38 North, said McDonald's can expose people to a side of the United States with which they may be unfamiliar. That can help moderate negative views in places such as North Korea, where anti-American propaganda is widespread. Town said she thinks it would make sense for McDonald's to open in Pyongyang. It would probably be popular: North Korea has approached McDonald's about franchising in the recent past, she said, but has had to turn to Singaporean burger knockoffs instead. (A spokesman for McDonald's did not respond to a request for comment.) Kim Jong Un is also believed to like burgers: In 2011, a South Korean newspaper reported that his father regularly had McDonald's flown from China on Air Koryo jets.
But Kayla Orta, an analyst in the History and Public Policy Program at the bipartisan Wilson Center, said she could not imagine that happening. "Perhaps the day we see American-style fast food restaurants in North Korea will be the day cultural diplomacy triumphs," she said. "But we're a long way off from that day."
Overseas North Korean Restaurants
As of 2016, there were about 130 North Korean restaurants overseas, many of them in China but also in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Middle East. They are staffed and operated by workers from North Korea, most of which remit their earning back to Pyongyang. The restaurants have been one of the few sources of hard currency for sanctions-deprived North Korea, generating roughly US$10 million a year, according to South Korean estimates. [Source: Eveline Danubrata and Damir Sagolj, Reuters, April 14, 2016]
Eveline Danubrata and Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “Many of the waitresses at the North Korean state-run restaurants overseas are chosen from a pool of graduates at the Pyongyang University of Commerce, where they learn to cook, sing, play instruments and dance. Loyalty to the regime is a major consideration for being chosen to go overseas. Once abroad, they are discouraged from mingling, live mostly in groups and are guarded by security officials.
“In Beijing, the Pinsanguo Restaurant, formerly called the Pyongyang Rungrado, appeared to be doing” okay. “Its 20 tables in the main room were half-full on a weekday night and a short song and dance show was performed at dinner-time. A smaller room was empty. A meal for two, including two North Korean beers, North Korean kimchi and barbecued meats, was priced at 450 yuan (about US$70), which is expensive by Beijing standards.
“In Jakarta, the Pyongyang Restaurant is spread over three floors, with customers discouraged from going to the top floor. A Chinese businessman who was behind the restaurant in Ningbo until about six months ago, said the employees lived in a dormitory and were provided food. At the Beijing restaurant, all the staff were female, except for a man who brought charcoal to the table for the barbecue and a man in a leather jacket who watched proceedings throughout from a corner of the room.”
North Korean Food in Vietnam
In 2003, Reuters reported: "North Korea has opened its first fast food restaurant in communist Vietnam, hoping to cash in on a taste for the unusual in boomtown Ho Chi Minh City. The main dish on the menu at the 50-seat restaurant is naengmyeon — wheat noodles served ice-cold, with a dash of traditional Korean pickle and broth extracted from cow's lungs and intestines. "The establishment will serve Vietnamese comrades," said Ryu H.Y., one of the eatery's four North Korean managers. Sited on the edge of a bustling commercial quarter in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the Taedonggang Pyongyang restaurant was nearly full today, its opening day. [Source: Reuters, October 12, 2003 **]
"The food here tastes great. It's very, very delicious," said Hattori Tsuneo, a Japanese businessman based in the city formerly known as Saigon. He sampled cold noodles and raw salmon. Paying the equivalent of just over US$US2 (US$A2.90) for a set meal — not too much more than a Vietnamese eatery's average rice dish — customers could wash it all down with soft drinks, Heineken beer or Japanese sake rice wine. Communist Vietnam, where average annual incomes still hover around US$US400 (US$A580), has few international fast-food chains. The U.S. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jollibee Foods Corp from the Philippines operate in Ho Chi Minh City. Ryu said he was sure that besides local Vietnamese, foreign tourists "contributing to the friendship and understanding between North Korea and the world" would also opt to eat there. **
"On the dining room's bright pink walls, pictures showed happy North Korean families rowing in the River Taedonggang, after which the restaurant is named. The restaurant represents one of the rare links that Vietnam, which has experienced many capitalist influences in recent years, has with the reclusive east Asian state. "The restaurant is important for North Korea's internationalisation," Ryu said in near-perfect French as a North Korean embassy staffer from the capital Hanoi looked on. **
North Korea is regarded as one of the world's most isolated countries and its hardline communist leaders are extremely wary of foreign influences. The restaurant is only the third North Korean restaurant open for business in southeast Asia. One is located in Cambodia's Siem Reap and the other is in Phnom Penh. The Korea International Travel Company (KITC) is the sole owner with a US$US100,000 (US$A145,300) investment in the Vietnam eatery. Ryu said the KITC was eyeing expansion to other cities and countries in Asia and Europe to promote North Korea's "special characteristics". "We will start small but grow big. We are capable of running a business, too," he said. **
Overseas North Korean Restaurants: Spying and Money-Laundering Fronts
North Korean expert and author Bertil Lintner told The Guardian the overseas North Korean restaurants have several financial benefits for the regime: “1) raise foreign exchange for the government in Pyongyang, 2) to finance the activities of the North Korean embassy in the country where a restaurant is located, and 3) to launder money from other activities,” he says, adding that restaurants are “perfect vehicles” for money-laundering. [Source: Emily Wight, The Guardian, June 26, 2014]
In October 2013, Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon said his informants had identified 60 such restaurants in Asia: 44 in China (including 11 in Beijing; six in Shanghai and six in Dandong), five each in Vietnam and Cambodia and one each in Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, and Laos. A quick search also turned up one in Dubai. A North Korean effort to open a restaurant in Amsterdam in 2012 ultimately closed over labor issues with its Dutch owner. [Source: Stephan Haggard, Peterson Institute of International Economics (PIIE) June 23, 2014]
Stephan Haggard wrote in the Peterson Institute of International Economics: “Labor issues are not the only barrier to moving beyond Asia. According to Gertz, the network is controlled either by the North Korean military’s General Reconnaissance Bureau, Bureau 39, or both. The motives are not limited to the foreign-exchange earning efforts of Bureau 39, but reflect an effort of the state to push foreign intelligence operations to finance themselves. All of the reports cited note the intelligence motives of the restaurants, which extend to commercial intelligence on South Korean businesses as well as other illicit activities such as money laundering and perhaps passing of counterfeit supernotes.
“The big question is how much they generate. Gertz’s sources in the intel community think the restaurants may remit about US$1.8 million in total — he cites a figure of US$10,000-30,000 a year in payments to Pyongyang each. (We initially read Gertz to suggest the restaurants were remitting US$1.8 million each, which was clearly implausible). If true, this amount would be only a small fraction of total labor remittances, which Gertz's sources estimate at about US$100 million.
“Remittances of this size necessary raise the sanctions question. Currently there are few means to squeeze this lucrative source of foreign exchange — and other overseas services income — except by targeting the financial networks through which earnings pass. But these networks probably include couriers carrying cash, use of the immunity of the diplomatic pouch and other informal financial networks as well as banks. Nonetheless, financial sanctions would at least raise the issue of such service income, which is a non-trivial source of foreign exchange.”
Waitresses Confined at Overseas North Korean Restaurants?
Emily Wight wrote in The Guardian: “At precisely 7.30pm, the waitresses put down their trays and start to perform. Wearing traditional Korean Choson-ot dresses in bright colours, they dance to a curious mix of western pop covers and North Korean national songs. We're in a vast, strip-lit venue that serves up dog stew washed down with soju and some form of kimchi in virtually every dish – but the restaurant’s main selling point is that it offers a window onto the world’s most secretive state. [Source: Emily Wight, The Guardian, June 26, 2014]
Welcome to Pyongyang restaurant in Phnom Penh. On the night we visit the Phnom Penh branch is packed with hundreds of diners, mostly Cambodian and South Korean men. TripAdvisor reviews give the chain an average four star rating and offer praise such as “a second degree kitsch experience” and “authentic North Korean style”.
James Hoare, a North Korean specialist at Soas University of London and former British chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, said the waitresses, who are recruited partly because they are from politically loyal families, live in compounds near the premises. “They would be from the political elite; the sort of people who live and work in Pyongyang. Nobody else gets to go abroad,” he said. The reason for this, he adds, is that they are less likely to escape.
“And to escape is to defect. Recently a waitress at one of the Pyongyang restaurants fled to Thailand with a South Korean man, sparking fresh tensions between the Koreas. There are fears here that her family back home will be made to suffer because of her behaviour. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official at a Pyongyang restaurant said that although waitresses were allowed to leave the compound to “go shopping”, to escape would be to defect and would surely result in government punishment. He said the restaurant was owned by “a company” that sponsors the North Korean national football team. “Actually my restaurant is involved in sports investment,” he said. Asked if waitresses are allowed to go out and socialise with non-North Koreans, he asked: “Why would they want to do that? They don’t want to go out and meet people!”“
Overseas North Korean Restaurants Suffering
Eveline Danubrata and Damir Sagolj of Reuters wrote: “Some North Korean restaurants across Asia have closed down and demand is lackluster at others - like the country itself, the establishments seem to be going through a crisis. Staff are suspicious of too many questions. Some of the restaurants are reported to have been suffering since harsh new United Nations sanctions were announced against Pyongyang in March following its recent nuclear and missile tests, although the restaurants were themselves not targeted in the U.N. resolution. South Korea last month discouraged its citizens from eating at North Korean restaurants abroad. [Source: Eveline Danubrata and Damir Sagolj, Reuters, April 14, 2016]
“One of two North Korean restaurants in Jakarta has also been closed down while another in Bangkok had a sign on the door saying it was shut until April 20 for renovations. The Pyongyang Restaurant still open in Jakarta is in the crowded Kelapa Gading area in the north of the city, wedged between offices, a bank and other eateries...The usual song and dance dinner performance by the waitresses was canceled, because there were fewer than 10 customers. "No photos," said one of the waitresses, dressed in a pink and black uniform, when a customer took out a camera.
“Tables were separated by wooden screens, so guests couldn't see each other, but there were few customers for dinner when a Reuters team visited. Instead of the song and dance routine, a North Korean concert was being shown on a television, a South Korean branded LG set. The waitresses, who spoke limited Bahasa Indonesia, declined to answer most questions. But asked who owned the restaurant, one of them said: "All North Koreans". Asked if that meant the government, she nodded.
Business was not good at the restaurant in Ningbo, China and some residents said it had been shut months ago for renovations.” The restaurant in Ningbo had been “in the news after the North's Red Cross Society identified it as the restaurant from where 13 staff members left for South Korea. South Korea has not said where the 13 were before entering the country, although media reports have said they defected via a Southeast Asian nation. Pyongyang called it a "hideous" abduction by agents from the South.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021