North Korean Restaurants in China Close Amid Regional Tensions

Chinese and South Koreans fed up with Pyongyang’s foreign policy are eating elsewhere.

North Korean hostesses wait for customers at the entrance to a North Korean restaurant in China's border city of Dandong, in a file photo.

North Korean restaurants in eastern China’s Shandong province are folding amid a downturn in business from South Korean and Chinese customers, who sources say are avoiding the eating establishments due to ongoing political tensions in the region.

The sources told RFA’s Korean Service that the shuttering of North Korean eateries in Shandong’s city of Qingdao is representative of a wider trend throughout China, as the restaurants—already known for high prices, poor food, and middling entertainment—struggle to bring in diners increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang’s belligerent foreign policy.

One source from Qingdao, who spoke with RFA on condition of anonymity, said all North Korean restaurants in the city’s Chengyang district had recently closed, despite the area being home to a thriving Korea Town with a large ethnic Korean population.

“Many North Korean restaurants—not only in Qingdao, but also in other areas [in China]—are suffering from low sales because they don’t have any customers,” the source said of the establishments, which are a key source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime amid international sanctions over Pyongyang’s development of its nuclear weapons program.

And while tensions have arisen between South Korea and China over the former’s deployment of the U.S. military’s THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in March, “[South] Korean restaurants in Qingdao continue to flourish,” he said.

“There are dozens of [South] Korean restaurants in the Korea Town in Qingdao,” the source said.

“There were three North Korean restaurants, but they have closed down because they had no customers.”

According to the source, there are several theories circulating about why the restaurants have shut down in Qingdao, but the prevailing assessment is that “North Korea continuously carries out nuclear experiments, despite international sanctions, and it is causing people to view them with contempt.”

North Korea detonated its fifth nuclear device in September last year and most recently tested what is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile engine on Thursday, according to U.S. officials.

The source acknowledged that “overpriced menus” could be partially responsible for the downturn in business.

“Compared to Chinese and [South] Korean restaurants in that area, the quality and taste of their food is quite disappointing,” he said.

And even though the restaurants offer entertainment, including dancing and singing by young North Korean women, the source said it is not enough to keep customers coming back.

“They only sing North Korean songs, so a couple of visits can be plenty,” he said.

Drop in customers

A Korean-Chinese source from Jilin province, near the border with North Korea told RFA that he was surprised to find all of Qingdao’s North Korean restaurants shuttered during a recent visit to the city.

“The restaurants were running last year but they are all closed down now,” said the source, who also asked to remain unnamed.

“The North Korean restaurant business in Qingdao was doing okay around the same time last year,” he said.

“I heard that the restaurants closed down not so long ago because customers, including South Korean travelers, stopped coming.”

The sources told RFA that unless North Korea reevaluates its foreign policy, the country’s remaining restaurants in China are also sure to face financial difficulties.

Restaurants in Chinese cities like Shenyang and Dandong near the North Korean border also suffered downturns last year as North Koreans working in cross-border trade began to avoid them, fearing that agents of the regime would watch them there and monitor their movements, sources have said.

Several North Korean restaurants have formed joint ventures with Chinese businessmen or with the landlord of the restaurant’s building in a bid to avoid being shut down for failing to pay rent amid slumping sales.

Declining business

Recent reports suggest that North Korean restaurants in Southeast Asian countries—such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand—are also experiencing a decline in business.

In February, a South Korean resident of Cambodia told RFA that a North Korean restaurant operating near the country’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex had closed while another was struggling to stay in business following last year’s strengthening of U.N. sanctions curbing funds for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

As many as eight North Korean restaurants were operating in Cambodia in late 2015, but only four are believed to be still in business, the source said at the time.

Despite being a main source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped North Korean government, the number of North Korean restaurants is on the decline globally. The 130 known North Korean restaurants that operate abroad generate some U.S. $10 million annually, according to South Korean estimates.

A growing body of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council reportedly have made it harder for the eateries to send funds back to Kim Jong Un's government.

U.N. human rights officials have also begun scrutinizing labor abuses committed by North Korea as it dispatches its citizens around the world to toil to earn hard currency for the regime.  

In April last year, a North Korean restaurant in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo made international headlines when 13 staff members escaped to South Korea to seek asylum—a mass defection that Pyongyang condemned as a "hideous" abduction by Seoul's agents.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.