North Korean-themed restaurants in Cambodia are struggling with financial difficulties due to UN sanctions and a dwindling customer base.
These restaurants are common all over East and Southeast Asia and were established to earn foreign cash for the North Korean regime.
They have been go-to destinations for dining in entertainment in places as far flung as Vladivostok and Shanghai. The main attraction is not necessarily the food; diners used to pack these establishments to catch a glimpse of the young dancing waitresses in colorful Korean dress.
Across the entire region, however, North Korean restaurants that once enjoyed a boom are now finding it hard to draw diners in. Many say that UN sanctions are to blame for the lack of customers.
Although a recent thawing in inter-Korean relations lifted restrictions on South Koreans visiting these restaurants, in the case of Cambodia, this has not helped to reverse the restaurants’ fortunes.
“North Korean restaurants used to make money hand over fist here, until the UN started enforcing the sanctions against North Korea,” said a Korean expat from Phnom Penh.
“Most of them have closed down since then and some of [those still open] are experiencing business difficulties,” the resident said, adding, “It is because South Korean tourists and local South Koreans stopped coming in since the UN enforced sanctions.”
The sanctions, aimed at depriving North Korea of $500 million per year that could be funneled into its nuclear program, have caused companies in both the private and public sectors to shy away from any kind of association with North Korea, as they fear being blacklisted themselves.
One set of sanctions is specifically designed to curb North Korea’s practice of sending workers overseas to earn hard currency for the government in a system that leaves the workers with only a fraction of their actual earnings.
The Phnom Penh resident said three North Korean restaurants were still active in Phnom Penh.
“There’s the Pyongyang Naengmyon [Cold Buckwheat Noodle] restaurant, Pyongyang Unhasu [Galaxy] restaurant, and the Pyongyang Arirang restaurant,” said the resident.
The resident said that on typical days these restaurants can expect to draw about 10 customers after 7pm, but since performances only happen at night, there are no customers at lunchtime.
“I’ve heard that [South Korea] lifted restrictions against South Korean tourists coming to these restaurants as the North-South relationship has gotten better. I don’t know why, but South Korean tourists don’t [seem to want to] visit,” the resident said.
The source added that in recent years the lack of business has forced some of the restaurants to diversify.
“They’re now opening up new cafes that sell alcohol, coffee, tea, noodles, and dumplings, doing their best to [try to] attract customers,” the source said.
“Business is so slow that they can’t even pay the waitresses,” the source said, adding: “[they] wait all day at the door for customers to come in, never stopping for breaks. It’s just pitiful.”
A waitress at one of the Phnom Penh restaurants explained that she and every other North Korean waitress in Cambodia are students from Pyongyang University of Commerce. She said they were sent out of North Korea to go through a period of “unpaid training.”
“We don’t get paid, and we must work from 11 in the morning to midnight,” said the waitress. “We get dispatched overseas during our sophomore year, and the training period is three years.”
“College is supposed to last four years, but because we all have to do overseas training, nobody graduates in four years,” the waitress said.
The waitress explained that even if they do return eventually, once they graduate finding any job related to their majors is difficult.
“Even though I majored in services, that doesn’t mean I get to do anything related to that when I get dispatched [for training.] I can only find that out when I get there,” she said.
“I miss my parents in Pyongyang. I am so far away from them in Cambodia and I can’t even call them whenever I want,” she said.
“I’ve been working in Cambodia for years and I feel most sorry for myself because I won’t have a chance to date someone.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.