Restaurant Pyongyang: Food, Drink and Propaganda in Phnom Penh
Writers in Cambodia are relentless in their pursuit of a story. So much so, in fact, that a chain of North Korean restaurants has been covered times, by both bloggers and international media. Writers can’t seem to fathom a North Korean restaurant existing in the middle of Southeast Asia. Either that, or they are too lazy to go out and find new stories to report on. The of chain restaurants is so over-covered, that on the very night I was dining at the restaurant, writer Adam Bray from The Fish Egg Tree was quietly sitting in the back of the room, eyeing the place up and stealthily documenting his experience for his own Facebook like-inducing blog post. For that reason, I delayed posting this article for a few weeks and even toyed with the idea of not posting it at all. Then, lo and behold, the New York Times ran this happy-go-lucky story on a North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap, and I just had to respond.
If the New York Times runs a piece on the chain, then it must be important news. And if the New York Times is a serious newspaper, then why is it that they took a serious story such as this and turned it into a fluff piece? The story the Times ran amounted to no more than a recommendation for a restaurant run by a group of international gangsters. Media and bloggers have reported this story as fluff for years, when what they should have been reporting on is the human trafficking that goes on at these restaurants and the fact that these businesses are even allowed to operate in the first place.
Here is the closing line from the New York Time’s piece:
As they depart the restaurant, South Korean patrons snap pictures with the waitresses and settle their bills with wads of dollar bills.
“Dashi man nap shida!” the North Korean performers say. “See you again!”
The quote sums up the problem with reviews of North Korean owned restaurants in Asia. Writers miss the real story of what these restaurants are actually about, and in doing so, actually promote an international criminal enterprise that helps prop up one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the world.
Another example of misguided reporting can be seen in this plug from the closing line of The Fish Egg Tree’s review:
As for a dining experience, it was nice, and the service was excellent. The waitresses spoke English well enough for me and were very attentive. The high prices aren’t quite merited though, at least without the music and dancing to accompany. If I can manage to get in again and sneak some photos of that, we may have another post here soon…
Otherwise, check it out for yourself.
Really? Go and check out a restaurant that is run by an authoritarian government that enslaves it’s own citizens in restaurants throughout Asia? Sounds like a great idea to me.
Cliché Restaurant Review:
Restaurant Pyongyang sits on busy Monivong Boulevard, in the heart of Phnom Penh. The building itself is nondescript and doesn’t really stand out unless you are looking for it. Aside from the lunch hours of 11:30 – 2:00, the only action your likely to see outside of the restaurant in the afternoon is some fancy SUV’s pulling up and leaving from time to time. I don’t even want to know what’s up with the SUVs. It’s been rumoured that managers at the restaurant pimp the waitresses out; most likely to North Korean officials visiting and working in Phnom Penh, to high-society Khmers, or to rich South Koreans, who want that North Korean experience but don’t want to brave the DMZ to get it.
North Korea Today ran a report that says prostitution is “widespread” at official government-run restaurants that cater to tourists in North Korea. If the report is true, it is likely that North Korean officials have absolutely no qualms pimping out waitresses at their establishments abroad as well. Unfortunately for the women being exploited, this story has never been substantiated because international media and bloggers prefer to have a nice meal and enjoy their shots of soju with eyes wide shut.
We showed up at the restaurant at around 7:45 in the evening. When we arrived, the restaurant was dead empty. There were no customers in the place, besides the blogger I mentioned earlier and a drunken South Korean man who was beginning to grow restless. It was just a few days after Kim Jong Ill’s death and there was an air of mourning in the overly grandiose canteen-hall styled restaurant. Normally at 7:45, there would be beautiful North Korean waitresses dancing about and performing for wide-eyed tourists. That was not the case on the night we dined. The show was “cancelled”; the workers were much “too sad” from Kim’s passing and honestly there weren’t enough people in the place to warrant a song and dance. A creepy feeling settled over our dinner, as melancholic music filled the room and the charade went on – with or without the Dear Leader.
We were seated by an overly enthusiastic North Korean waitress who showed us menus and made a few recommendations on dishes. The waitress recognized my girlfriend was South Korean and began to speak to her in Korean. The waitress also addressed me in Korean once she realized I could speak a bit of the language. I did my best to order and chat with her in Korean, but she still chastised my girlfriend for my lack of Korean skills. I ordered North Korean Beer – Taedonggang, which surprisingly, they didn’t have. I also ordered a bottle of North Korean soju to help wash the beer down. The waitress said they didn’t have that either. Instead, she brought me a bottle of over priced local pilsner from Kingdom Breweries and a bottle of the South Korean soju – Chamisul. Nothing but another country’s finest for the customers of Restaurant Pyongyang. I pounded down the drinks and tried to get my head around the place.
To the casual observer, there doesn’t seem to be much propaganda in Restaurant Pyongyang. However, upon closer inspection, it is all over the place. There is an over-sized painting of a tiger standing proudly on Baekdu mountain, the reported (by the North Korean government) birthplace of Kim Jong-Ill. The waitresses all wear name-tags, with their name’s engraved into plastic North Korean flags. Yes, the North Koreans do what they do best at Restaurant Pyongyang; they try to sell the message of the regime to anyone gullible enough to buy into it. That being said, I didn’t see the obligatory picture of the Dear Leader or his father hanging on the wall. Perhaps they hung those up in back for the employees to worship in private.
As we sat there, I was thinking back to a few months earlier when my girlfriend and I had seen some North Korean waitresses shopping in Lucky Supermarket. They had looked to me, like any other South Korean women. The women were dressed in sexy mini-skirts and were chatting and giggling with one another as they went about and did their shopping. My girlfriend pointed out to me that they were North Koreans. She said she could tell by their accents. They must have spoken English well enough to understand our conversation because one of them said in Korean, “She knows we’re North Korean.” The two women were being tailed by a couple of male handlers as they shopped. After we noticed them, it wasn’t long before they paid for their goods and quickly left the store, handlers following closely behind. “How different they look tonight”, I thought, as a woman dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok approached our table to take our order.
I ordered 단고기탕 or 보신탕 in South Korean dialect. Translated, that means rejuvenating dog soup. Yes, I had the North Koreans or more than likely, some poor Cambodian cook, slaughter a dog and boil it up for me to eat. I know, how could I? Let the hate mail roll in. My girlfriend ordered 평양냉면 or cold noodle soup. We shared an order of 육회, raw beef seasoned with sesame oil and mixed with freshly cut pears.
North Korean’s also have their hands in Cambodia’s kimchi market. They have somehow convinced Lucky Supermarket to peddle their wares for them at stores throughout Phnom Penh.
The food itself was delicious, much the same as other writer’s have already described. The service was fine and I didn’t think the price was too expensive for the quality of the food. That being said, the food was very similar to what you find in a typical upscale South Korean restaurant. It was food that an average North Korean would never, in their wildest dreams, ever have access to. The meal couldn’t have been any further from the truth of what a real North Korean dining experience is actually like. Remember, there are people starving to death in North Korea.
The highlight and entertainment of the evening came when the South Korean man started to lose it and began serenading the empty restaurant with 1960′s folk songs. The staff was respectful and allowed him to complete almost an entire song before silencing him. The waitresses, apparently adept in dealing with South Koreans who get sloppy in their establishment, quickly ushered the man out the door as soon as his bill was paid. There can be no dissent in the house of Kim.
There is an important story to be told about this restaurant and others like it. The problem is international media and bloggers are choosing the wrong story to report. Instead of writing about human trafficking, we get shitty restaurant reviews. Instead of a story that explains to us why Cambodian officials would possibly allow such restaurants to exist, we get implicit dining recommendations from the New York Times. Sure, the food is good, but it’s what’s being sold to us that’s really important. North Koreans are selling food in Cambodia, the media is giving them free advertising and tourists are eating it up. All the while, the North Korean government is laughing straight to the bank while it’s citizens starve to death. I hope you enjoy your meal.
Smurfystew is the founding editor and lead Web designer at AsiaPundits.com. He originally hails from the Mount Rushmore state in Middle America. He was an ESL rodeo clown in Seoul, South Korea for six years before moving to the tropics of Cambodia. The dude currently abides in Phnom Penh, where he works as an English teacher and freelance writer