What it's like inside North Korea's controversial restaurant chain

Over 100 Pyongyang restaurants are spread throughout Asia, all owned and operated by the North Korean government as a way to generate foreign currency. Female citizens are sent out from North Korea to work as servers at the restaurants, and they’re overseen by minders to assure they don’t defect. Here’s what it’s like to dine in one of the restaurants. Following is a transcript of the video.

Hikosaemon: The food has been great, the music entertainment was astounding, in terms of experiencing the North Korean culture and what it’s like. It was super cool.

North Korea’s government owns and operates around 130 restaurants across Asia. The restaurants are called Pyongyang, named after the capital of North Korea. Serving North Korean food and liquor and featuring live music, the chain offers visitors a rare glimpse into the reclusive nation’s culture.

Hikosaemon: The food is excellent, actually.

Tokyo based video-blogger, Hikosaemon visited the Pyongyang restaurant in Dalian, China.

Hikosaemon: It looked like fairly standard Korean food, it was various kimchi, various sort of, soups and meats and so on. It wasn’t that much to look at but it really was very good. It was really tasty. The beer, as well. I think it tasted a bit like Tsingtao. It was one of those, sort of light, sweetish beers that they make in China. But I have to say, I wasn’t expecting much of the food. Again, you just have this idea that it’s a resource poor country that you don’t expect the food to be a little bit austere or something.

The wait staff is made up only young North Korean women. They serve food, perform pop songs and traditional Korean music and chat with the diners.

Hikosaemon: The people who are serving your meal, they sit down at your table and you get to chat with them for a time and ask them about North Korea and they ask about Japan and so on and then they go up and they sing, they dance, they play multiple instruments. I’ve never experienced anything like that at all, I suppose.

The Pyongyang restaurant chain generates about 10 million dollars for North Korea each year but here’s the catch: the restaurants are a direct violation of UN sanctions.

Julian Ku: The United Nations Security Council has required any country in the world that’s a member of the United Nations to enforce sanctions on North Korea to limit its access to foreign currency and to foreign products and these are very wide-ranging sanctions and they include things like allowing them to operate joint ventures or businesses in your country.

So, the United Nations has passed this resolution. It was agreed to by all the major countries, including China and the United States but it’s up to each individual country to enforce those sanctions and so countries can choose to either look the other way or lightly enforce it or not enforce it at all.

Pyongyang employees are selected by the government and kept under a watchful eye.

Julian Ku: The one thing that’s interesting about these businesses is what it requires North Korea to do is send its own people out into the world. In North Korea, you’re not actually allowed to leave the country. That’s why people will call it a prison camp. You have to get special permission and it’s really hard to get and almost no one gets to go abroad and when they do go abroad, they’re tightly isolated and kept away.

Hikosaemon: I just appreciated the fact that it sort of humanized the image of the country just a little bit while at the same time still having all that thing, that you know them and the restaurant’s there for hard currency for the regime and the people there are not strictly free. They have minders. They can go out in town with minders and so on but basically, they live in a dorm attached to the restaurant.

It didn’t feel like I was at a prison camp or being spied upon, as much as you might expect that to be. It actually surprised me at how normal it was and it was a pleasant evening in spite of perhaps knowing what else is going on.

The restaurants made news in 2016 when a crew of 13 workers defected to South Korea. South Korea’s foreign ministry has advised people to not dine in Pyongyang restaurants because the profits benefit the Kim regime. But with warming relations between North Korea and the rest of the world, these chains may become less taboo in the future.

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