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North Korean Restaurants Finding Hard to Draw Diners In

These restaurants are common all over East and Southeast Asia and were established to earn foreign cash for the North Korean regime

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“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.” Pixabay

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.

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Empty dining hall during lunch hour at Pyongyang Unhasu Restaurant in Phnom Penh on Feb. 10, 2019. RFA

“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.

north korea, north korean restaurants, waitress
“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. Pixabay

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.”

Stolen Youth

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.

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“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. Pixabay

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.

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“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. (RFA)

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North Korean Authorities Ramping Up The Levels of Strictness at Weekly Self-Criticism Sessions

North Korea experts have suggested that the purpose of these sessions is to instill fear into the public, making them easier for authorities to control.

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Pyongyang citizens in a file photo. RFA

Following the breakdown of talks at the most recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, North Korean authorities are reportedly ramping up the levels of strictness at weekly life appraisal sessions.

Known as saenghwal chonghwa, the sessions are self-criticism meetings in which every citizen must individually confess their shortcomings on the political loyalty front.

The confessor must then hear additional criticism from other citizens, then form an action plan to compensate for those shortcomings.

Since the failed late-February Hanoi Summit, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could not come to an agreement on denuclearization for sanctions removal, authorities in the repressive country are becoming increasingly rigid during these weekly meetings.

“These days, there is an air of tension at life appraisal sessions that can’t even be compared with how they were previously. Attendees can’t even cough out loud,” said a Pyongyang resident who recently traveled to China in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

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“North Korean citizens are becoming concerned about their future because [they think] this could mean that international sanctions will be even heavier.” Pixabay
The resident explained how the level of seriousness during saenghwal chonghwa ebbs and flows depending on how optimistic the regime feels on the current social climate.

“When there’s a positive social mood, [the sessions] were just perfunctory, but it’s not like that at all [right now],” said the source.

“[The sessions] usually take about an hour, but now it’s getting to be close to two hours,” the source said.

Simply going through the motions as usual is no longer enough, according to the source.

“If they are only moderately critical about themselves, or if their peers hold back, [the authorities] make them stand in front of everyone so that all in attendance can be more direct and more intensely criticize them,” the source said.

“It must feel just as miserable to give out such harsh criticism to colleagues and neighbors as it is to receive it,” said the source.

According to the source, the affair is normally planned out between attendees. Prior to the meetings they mutually agree on what to criticize each other about—usually trivial things.

“But it doesn’t work that way now. They have to harshly criticize each other. Now people are starting to make enemies even with their close neighbors during these life-appraisal sessions,” the source said.

North Korea experts have suggested that the purpose of these sessions is to instill fear into the public, making them easier for authorities to control.

In a recent report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, author Robert Collins detailed saenghwal chonghwa as one means by which the North Korean government uses the people to deny rights to each other, as a strategy of social control that extends even to the private lives of citizens.

A second source, from North Pyongan province, implied that being stricter at saenghwal chonghwa, is a means of diverting attention from the failed summit by keeping people on their toes.

Hanoi summit
Since the failed late-February Hanoi Summit, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could not come to an agreement on denuclearization for sanctions removal, authorities in the repressive country are becoming increasingly rigid during these weekly meetings. VOA

“As talk about the collapse [of the summit] is spreading, the authorities seem to be intentionally creating tension by being stricter,” the source said.

The source recalled other gossip-worthy events that authorities wanted to silence discussion about.

“Whenever there are huge issues [to talk about], such as the execution of Jang Song-thaek [Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who experts believe was a legitimate challenge to Kim’s power,] the authorities tried to cover the mouths and ears of the public through strict life-appraisal sessions,” the source said.

“[They] are really emphasizing self-reliance more often during the sessions these days,” said the source, adding, “North Korean citizens are becoming concerned about their future because [they think] this could mean that international sanctions will be even heavier.”

The practice of saenghwal chonghwa began in March 1962. Usually 10 to 15 people from the workplace or neighborhood attend the sessions to collectively determine ways for each individual to become better citizens.

Every Saturday a weekly appraisal session is held, with a monthly session on the month’s final Saturday. There are also quarterly and yearly appraisals. The sessions are facilitated by low-level local inminban(neighborhood watch units) and detailed records are kept.

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None are spared from self-criticism, as even elites are subject to the weekly sessions.

Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile defector who once served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, described the sessions in his memoir as “the most fundamental principle of the North Korean slave state.” (RFA)