The North Korean-themed restaurant boom is over, at least as far as the Chinese city of Dandong is concerned. Three North Korean restaurants in the border city have closed down this month, and staff at the restaurants are now returning home, sources say.
Used by Pyongyang as a major source of foreign cash, North Korean restaurants were at the height of their popularity several years ago in China, Russia and Southeast Asia. But the main attraction was not the food. The draw was the female entertainer-waitresses.
Now the novelty seems to have worn off, and coupled with U.N. sanctions against North Korea designed to cut funds for its nuclear and missile programs, many North Korean restaurants throughout the region are struggling to stay in the black or even to operate with a full staff.
“The Ryu Gyong, Pyongyang Koryo, and Mount Chilbo restaurants all closed down this month,” said a resident of Dandong on Thursday in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.
“The Ryu Gyong restaurant was the biggest of the three here in Dandong. It was closed down for a while due to China’s sanctions in the past, but it reopened in 2017 when Kim Jong Un made his visit to China,” said the resident.
“But now it’s gone. Meanwhile the Pyongyang Koryo restaurant, just across the street from Ryu Gyong has been operating here for 15 years,” the resident said.
“Mount Chilbo is a bulgogi [marinated sliced beef] restaurant and its owner is Chinese but all 15 members of the staff are North Koreans, so it was basically a North Korean restaurant. It is also closing and they all have to go back to North Korea,” said the resident.
The resident said that there are competing theories surrounding the sudden closures.
“People say that North Korean restaurants are closing down because the business is no longer viable, but others say that China isn’t approving visa renewals for the workers to stay long-term. It’s hard to confirm which story is right or wrong,” said the resident.
Another source, who visits Dandong’s maritime customs building daily said, “Groups of North Korean workers are seen returning home practically every day. Eighty percent of those returning are young women and less than 20 percent are men,” the source said.
Those who have noticed are speculating on the reasons behind the exodus of North Koreans.
“There are many rumors about it because groups of North Koreans are going back home right after Kim Jong Un returned from his Vietnam visit. But that’s also coincidentally when their most recent [two year] residency permits ended,” said the source.
To comply with U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China cannot extend or issue new working visas to North Koreans.
"Chinese companies that hired North Korean workers have to return them home by the end of June this year, under instructions from Chinese authorities. It doesn't matter if they have remaining time on their visas,” the source said.
“Once they go back home, they will likely never again have any chance of coming back to China," the source said.
After the closure of the three restaurants, around 10 others reportedly remain operational in Dandong.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.