Diners Give Cold Shoulder to North Korean Restaurants After Pyongyang's Provocations, U.N. Sanctions

North Korean restaurants in Cambodia earning foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime are facing a slump in sales as South Korean tourists they rely on for cash shun the establishments amid provocations from Pyongyang, according to sources. Situated near the Angkor Wat UNESCO World Heritage Site in western Cambodia, Siem Reap is home to two well-known North Korean restaurants called Pyongyang Naeng-myeon Gwan (Cold Noodles Hall) and Pyongyang Chin-seon Gwan (Goodwill Hall).

Naeng-myeon Gwan and Chin-seon Gwan employ 23 and 26 mostly-female North Koreans, respectively, who work under the close supervision of their handlers to provide diners with typical North Korean fare and entertainment, such as singing and dancing, in the evening. A South Korean resident of Siem Reap, who gave his name as Kang Sung-jin, told RFA’s Korean Service that his countrymen are drawn to the restaurants “out of curiosity,” adding that South Koreans also feel more familiar with the cuisine and culture from North Korea than that of Cambodia.

North Korean restaurants in Cambodian cities Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have seen business stagnate as South Korean diners, who used to be the main customers, avoid the eateries in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests and a dramatic defection by restaurant workers. Photo: RFA

“It’s wonderful to be there—when we relax in a room after a performance, [the performers] come in and play [instruments] and even sing,” he said.

“We can’t hold their hands, but it still is great to see beautiful North Korean ladies singing and dancing. That’s the reason we go there and have a drink.”

But according to Kang, the number of South Koreans visiting the two restaurants has declined precipitously since the United Nations announced sanctions against North Korea in March 2016, in response to Pyongyang’s launch of a ballistic missile in February and test of a nuclear weapon a month earlier.

“Even when the tourists ask if they can visit North Korean restaurants, [South Korean] tour guides say no ... [as] they must follow the orders of the [South Korean] government,” he said.

“We [South Korean expatriates living in Cambodia] comply with this, because that is the reality we understand. South Koreans hear that [Pyongyang] is preparing for [additional] nuclear tests, so it is only natural for South Korea … to keep North Korea at a distance.”

North Korea routinely sends workers abroad who labor in various industries—often for long hours and amid dangerous conditions. Most of their salary is sent home to a fund a regime that is developing a nuclear weapons program while failing to adequately feed its citizens.

A poster denouncing North Korea produced by the Siem Reap Korean Society. Photo: RFA

Chang Won-pyo, secretary general of the Siem Reap Korean Community Association, said his organization had been campaigning against Naeng-myeon Gwan and Chin-seon Gwan since early 2016, hanging posters condemning Pyongyang’s tests in South Korean establishments and preventing local operators from including the restaurants in area tours. An RFA reporter visited Chin-seon Gwan in late April 2016 and found the lights off, no customers, and only a handful of servers holding a conversation in the back during the restaurant’s lunch hour.

“There wasn’t enough data on the number of permits issued, the number of workers, or the exact dates indicating the length of the work period,” he said, adding that the EU should order its member governments to release such information.

“We think that Austria and Italy should release this data, even if the North Korean workers are no longer there … because such information can be used as an important reference tool to find out how the North Korean workers were dispatched to Europe, to which field, and what kind of environment they worked in.”

Over the course of an hour, no patrons entered the establishment, although a South Korean restaurant next door was full of tourists at the time. Similarly, Naeng-myeon Gwan—widely considered North Korea’s most popular restaurant worldwide—was completely empty at 7:00 p.m. the same day.

Working conditions

North Korean servers in restaurants around the world are usually replaced every three years because their work requires that they make contact with foreigners, including South Koreans, who may cause them to question their political indoctrination and loyalty to the regime.

According to Kang, one such woman, whom he called “the daughter of a powerful man in North Korea,” fled Siem Reap in 2014 after a patron helped her board a flight to Bangkok, where she defected at the South Korean embassy and relocated to Seoul.

A North Korean restaurant specializing in Pyongyang-style Naengmyeon (cold noodle) in Siem Reap (top), and the Moranbong restaurant in Phnom Penh (bottom). Photo: RFA

A former North Korean diplomat named Ko Young Hwan, who has since defected to South Korea, told RFA that female servers in Siem Reap are given just as little freedom as servers at North Korean restaurants in other parts of the world. They rarely leave their restaurants, he said, because they also eat and sleep there in rooms shared by up to four people.

“Wage exploitation is a very important issue [for the servers],” he said.
“Additionally, they always move around in groups without any freedom.”

According to Ko, whenever North Korea celebrates an important political event the servers must also pay into various “loyalty and publicity funds,” and hand over certain amounts for “maintaining the dignity of the head of state.”

“So they can hardly expect to receive anything from their low monthly wages,” he said.

Tailoring tastes

North Korean restaurants operating in Phnom Penh haven’t fared much better than their Siem Reap counterparts amid the decline from sanctions, with three permanently closing their doors since the end of 2015, leaving five still in business.

A guide who gave his name as Choi Sung-ho said that in order to make up for the loss in potential revenue from the 300,000 South Korean tourists who visit Cambodia each year, many North Korean restaurants in the capital have started catering to Chinese tastes.

A poster at the entrance of Angkor Panorama Museum offers a 30 percent discount for foreign visitors. Photo: RFA

When RFA visited the Phnom Penh branch of Chin-seon Gwan restaurant with Choi in April, our reporter was greeted in Mandarin and discovered some 100 tourists from China and Taiwan eating dinner from a menu that included Chinese specialties such as dumplings.

“The style of the songs and performance is totally different,” Choi said, noting that mainly Chinese music is now played when the evening entertainment begins.
“[The servers’] body types also seem to have been internationalized to the ones that Chinese people prefer.”

The influx of Chinese tourists has helped North Korean restaurants in Phnom Penh, but the businesses are operating at a loss, Choi said, adding that most continue to stay open simply because they are state-owned enterprises.

Reported by Jae-wan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.