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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.

North korea, north korean restaurant, waitress
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.

north korean restaurants, north korea waitress
“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)

Next Story

North Korea Bans Imports of Chinese Pork on Fears of African Swine Fever Epidemic

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source

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chinese pork, african swine fever
The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in. Wikimedia Commons

North Korean authorities have banned imports of Chinese pork as an African swine fever (ASF) epidemic rages north of the Yalu River border between the two countries.

According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 138 ASF outbreaks since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled since the initial outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

North Korea’s ministry of agriculture confirmed the country’s first ASF outbreak in Chagang province on May 23 and South Korea’s ministry of unification has proposed discussions on how the two Koreas can work together to stop the further spread of the disease.

But RFA sources in North Korea say Chinese pork is still being sold in local markets. “A few days ago I heard from a customs official that North Korea has completely blocked all imports of pork and beef from China to prevent the spread of African swine fever,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on June 2.

chinese pork, african swine fever
Pigs stand in a barn at a pig farm in Jiangjiaqiao village in northern China’s Hebei province on May 8, 2019. Pork lovers worldwide are wincing at prices that have jumped by up to 40 percent as China’s struggle to stamp out African swine fever in its vast pig herds sends shockwaves through global meat markets. RFA

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. “I heard that in some areas, including Pyongyang and Sinuiju, they are trying to control pork sales, but no action has been taken yet in North Hamgyong,” said the source. The source said that the ban is quite rare, especially since diseases among livestock are common during this part of the year.

“There have been infectious swine diseases in the past, but they never banned the import of pork from China. At this time of year, we are usually hit with infectious swine diseases and many pigs are culled, but none of the residents bury the dead pigs,” the source said. The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in.

“The price of pork is between 14 and 15 Chinese Yuan (slightly more than $2) per kilogram, which is the same as before the authorities banned Chinese pork. Even though customs authorities are blocking pork imports from China, there is so much pork being smuggled in,” the source said. Another source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban is strange, given that North Korean customs officials generally follow the lead of their Chinese counterparts.

“On the first of the month, pork that was to be brought in from China was quarantined at North Korean customs and sent back. It is unusual for our customs office to block this pork shipment because it didn’t have any problem going through Chinese customs,” said the second source.

“That [particular] pork shipment was to be brought in by a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who is a restaurant owner in Rason,” the second source said. “He thought there would be no problem going through customs because he regularly brings in pork from China. But the Wonjong customs office did not let it pass through on orders from the Central Committee,” the second source said.

chinese pork, african swine fever
“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. Wikimedia Commons

The second source said the restaurant owner was surprised his shipment was held back. “He has had no problem bringing in pork from China for several years now. Even when swine fever [started] spreading in China, he kept bringing it in. It’s the first time he has been stopped and he’s totally bewildered,” the second source said.

The second source said that the price of pork remains stable despite the ban, and no cases of ASF have been reported in Rason. Even so, residents have become fearful of the disease.

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“[They think] African swine fever is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of 100%, but Chinese pork is still being sold at the local markets and no restrictions have been announced,” said the second source. According to a USDA fact sheet, ASF is deadly only to domestic and feral pigs and does not affect humans. People can, however, spread the virus by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected livestock.

According to a source in South Pyongan province, North Korea has not culled pigs in any of its state-run farms where an ASF outbreak has occurred. The pigs instead were supplied to sausage factories at low cost. This has caused a flood of sausages to enter the market, cutting the price of sausage in half. (RFA)

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.