Strung out across Southeast Asia is a chain of restaurants where doll-like North Korean waitresses sing to diners as they sample the country’s cuisine (well, what’s left of it). Is it a benign culinary business foray or something altogether more sinister?
For what I’d imagined to be a faceless servant of the Dear Leader, the woman who picks up the phone at the North Korean Embassy is bewilderingly chipper. Are the rumours true, I ask. Is North Korea running a restaurant in Jakarta? “Yes,” she replies. Can just anyone turn up? “Sure.” Are the staff really shipped in from North Korea? Do they really dance for us, in unison, while singing karaoke? “Of course,” she says, her voice sliding into a ribald whine, like a Stalinist bordello madam. “We’ve got pretty, pretty girls.”
For most outsiders, a standard view of North Korea prevails. It is a bleak, grey place of concrete, denuded farms, monumental follies and – besides a ruthless few – empty bellies. Oppressed people move in lockstep and the state, personified in Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, reigns supreme.
Pyongyang Restaurant on a suburban street in the Indonesian capital is where the regime presents a friendlier face. The promised waitresses are slender, look like porcelain dolls and glide between tables of Korean barbecue in flowing traditional dresses, known as choson-ot. The restaurant is light on propaganda; the walls are decorated with images of natural scenery painted in stirring, socialist-realist style.
At 20.00 the waitresses take to the stage and belt out 1950s Korean pop favourites. No politics, no bombast, no paeans to the Dear Leader; the scariest thing is a garbled attempt at Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. Beer flows, the food is excellent and the clientele – mostly South Korean and Japanese expatriates – appear thoroughly drunk.
c The Jakarta restaurant is part of a network of dozens of establishments across Asia run by representatives of North Korea. Most are in China, but in the past decade they’ve spread through Southeast Asia into Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos and Indonesia. The restaurants exist, in short, because North Korea has no money and are set to become increasingly important as more sanctions are targeted at the regime.
“The restaurants are actually an organised way of generating revenue,” says Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. North Korea’s centrally planned economy is cut off from the rest of the world, but the regime still needs foreign cash. The restaurants are said to be part of a business empire run by Bureau 39, a shady agency believed to be behind a slew of overseas businesses, both legal and illegal, that prop up the regime. The businesses are alleged to be involved in everything from cigarette smuggling to the production of ultra-high-quality fake $100 bills, known as “supernotes”. North Koreans abroad often run these businesses as semi-private affairs, sending cuts of money all the way up the line, some say, to Kim himself.
“These guys abroad are not particularly well-supervised and as long as money keeps rolling back to North Korea, there’s a tendency to leave these guys alone. So some of them are pretty entrepreneurial,” Noland says. At best, the restaurants earn a few million dollars a year, he says, but it is likely they help launder cash from other North Korean ventures.
North Korean defector Kim Kwang-jin was once a part-time scammer for the regime. As a representative of the state-controlled Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) in Singapore, he says he helped lodge false insurance claims that were then diverted to the leadership. “Every year we collected $20m cash from foreign banks and sent it to Knic headquarters in Pyongyang; then it goes to Kim Jong-il,” he says. “The North Korean government cannot fund most embassies, so those embassies have to finance themselves and should be involved in other activities,” he says, adding that these activities are frequently criminal.
In Jakarta, the owner of the restaurant, Park Hak-won, is indignant at suggestions he’s a regime stooge. Park says he’s in Indonesia as a representative of North Korea’s culinary association. “If you ever think our tiny fortune could be used for other purposes for North Korea, that is totally wrong,” he says, visibly tensing.
It’s tempting to believe him. The restaurant is surprisingly, if incompletely, open. Park says the waitresses come out on three to five-year stints and that he lets them travel around town in groups. South Korean expatriates familiar with the restaurants scoff at this, however. The waitresses are believed to be confined to a few approved places.
The fate of the waitresses seems to be one of repetitive workdays, drunken jokes at the expense of the Dear Leader and plenty of unwanted sexual attention. Towards the end of one night, a middle-aged South Korean, sloshed and leering, repeatedly grabs one waitress by the arm. Each time, she fixes him with a smile and, rigidly, subtly, draws her body back.
Later, as the women sweetly usher the man and his friends to the door, he makes it obvious the failed flirtation has been going on for a while. “We’ve got a lot of money,” he booms. “I thought you’d only call me. I guess you give your number to all the guys.”
North Korea’s restaurants tend to serve seasonal food that is free of foreign influences and the sweeter, spicier and sourer tastes that have changed South Korean cooking. “Koreans keep going back because they can’t get food like that anymore in South Korea,” says Lee Kang-hyeon, our translator and a Jakarta-based food reviewer.
The popular bulgogi barbecue is available but the signature dishes are mandu (pork or chicken dumplings), naengmyeon (a Pyongyang dish of cold mixed buckwheat noodles in broth), bosingtang (dog meat soup) and sundae (pigs’ blood and noodle sausages). Kimchi pickled cabbage is of course a staple but is milder than its South Korean variant. North Korean dishes are often relatively bland, with the flavour packed into sauces. Tradition states that people follow the seasons when eating, to maintain balance in the body: hot food during summer and cold food, such as naengmyeon, during winter.
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