‘Secret rooms’ in North Korean restaurants create a space to conduct illicit affairs

The back rooms bring in extra cash to help struggling business owners meet state-set earnings quotas
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
‘Secret rooms’ in North Korean restaurants create a space to conduct illicit affairs This file photo shows a restaurant in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
AP file photo

In North Korea, couples involved in illicit romantic or business affairs who need private places away from prying eyes don’t have many options. 

So restaurant and karaoke bar owners have created “secret rooms” – usually in the back of their establishments – where so-called “8.3 couples” can pay extra for privacy, which brings in extra cash, sources in the country say.

The slang for secret or adulterous couples comes from a government directive issued back on August 3, 1984, that encouraged factories to earn extra money beyond their state-set profit quotas by reusing waste materials. It has come to refer to anyone who does extra work on the side.

Such private rooms are not new in North Korea; authorities had shut down most of them in past crackdowns to stamp out “anti-socialist” behavior. 

But they are now re-emerging, probably because many eateries and related outfits are struggling to make money three-years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included a lengthy shutdown that restricted travel and trade has crippled the economy, the sources told Radio Free Asia.

In the northeastern coastal city of Chongjin, even the most popular restaurants have secret rooms because the managers are worried they won’t meet their government-mandated quotas, a resident there said on condition of anonymity so as not to get in trouble.

“The secret room is usually located in the corner of the dining room, a table placed in a dressing room, or a room previously used to store food materials,” she said. 

“Restaurant staff will quietly escort 8.3 couples – men and women who appear to be in a romantic relationship – to the secret room,” she said. “After the food is served, the server does not enter the secret room unless the customer asks.”

Loaded male patrons

Such privacy does come at a price, reflected in the more expensive menu items. Most of the clientele are rich North Korean men – a somewhat rare breed in the country – who can afford to spend more, she said.

“Men who come in with a young woman are usually loaded, so they will seek out more expensive food than regular customers and drink lots of beer and other beverages,” she said. “The restaurants offer the secret rooms to attract these kinds of customers who can spend more.”

The eastern coastal city of Sinpo has many restaurants running secret rooms, a source there who recently visited one with a female business partner said.

“I experienced it myself when I went to a restaurant in Sinpo last week,” he said. “The server directed us to a room in the back. It was a small room with only one table, but no one was coming in and out. So, it was good to talk about business and secrets.”

He thought the food prices were a bit expensive, but “didn’t want to argue so I could save face in front of the woman I was with,” he said. “On the way out, I saw the server guiding another young man and woman into the secret room.”

Chong Eun-joo, a former restaurant worker who lived in North Hamgyong Province until 2019 and resettled in South Korea, said her former workplace had two secret rooms.

“We guided men and women who seemed to be in a relationship or were 8.3 couples into the secret rooms,” she said. “You can tell when you see an 8.3 couple.” 

“We charged 2,000 won [about 24 U.S. cents] more per item on the menu,” she said, explaining that it represented about a 10% price increase. “There were many cases where customers who used the room once came back again.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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Apr 13, 2023 07:42 PM

this is straight up anti-communist propagandha dont believe such news folks