At the gates of Pyongyang. 'Then the Black Gate opened and the dark armies of Sauron marched forth to cover the..." oops, wrong story.
I’d been trying to visit North Korea’s Pyongyang Restaurant ever since news of Kim Jong-Il’s death broke (see: ) but unfortunately it remained closed for 10 ceremonial days to mourn the Dear Leader. Tonight was the first night of re-opening since the funeral this week.
The restaurant, located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is allegedly one of many overseas ventures that are not-so-secretly run by the quasi-Marxist (but ‘officially’ no longer communist) dynastic regime. The rumor is that they pump some much-needed foreign currency (US Dollars) into the North Korean ‘economy,’ if you can even call ‘that’ a functioning economy. None of this is officially admitted.
The restaurant is situated on the south side of town in a closed compound. Its not possible to look inside the restaurant, or any other part of the compound, from the outside—which gives it an air of pseudo-James Bondiness.
Entering the gates, I was led down a covered driveway and into a large dining room. The first thing that hit me were the stunningly beautiful North-Korean waitresses. They told me that all 13 of them were on 3-year internships as part of their enrollment at the Pyongyang University of Commerce. All were between 21 and 24 years old, had white skin with perfect complexions, long black hair, and dressed in plain but feminine black-a-white uniforms.
Lovely North Korean waitresses greeting guests at the door.
I was seated at the back of the room. The first thing I did was haul my camera out, and immediately there was a chorus of ‘Sir, no, no, no!’ They also obsessively watched my constant fidgeting with my iPhone to make sure I didn’t get any photos with that either… whoops.
The dining room was unremarkable, other than a few enormous oil paintings of waves crashing on rocks at sunset and streams wandering through mountain foothills and pink cherry blossoms. Presumably they were idealized pictures of home. What surprised me most about the room was that there were no pictures of Kim Jong-Il or even The Drear Leader Jr. No ‘We are gonna miss you, Dear Leader and Forbes 31st Most Powerful Person” memorial photos, and no ‘Congratulations to the Little Generalissimo, Kim Jung-Un’ wreaths.
I was told by the staff that in Phnom Penh there are 3 North Korean restaurants, but they are all ‘separate.’ I couldn’t get further clarification on what ‘separate’ meant, since I’m under the impression that all such establishments are government-run. Perhaps they meant something like one funds Kim’s golf trips, another funds nuclear missiles, and the third funds play dates with Iran?
Obligatory Korean food shot one.
The menu was big (literally—it took 4 hands to sift through it), and had a decent selection, though items were pricy. A lovely Dog Meat Casserole Platter was $25. A huge plate of kimchi (which would easily do a whole dinner party) was $3. Most Entrées were between $6 and $30. I settled on a plate of mondu (fried meat-filled dumplings), kimchi, a platter of fried eggplant and a large serving of bulgogi (BBQ beef) for a total of $25. Additionally, I asked if the staff received any of the tip money but they told me no, so I didn’t bother. There were a few typical Korean condiments—mostly pickled, steamed and boiled things—but not as many as there really should be for the price. The food wasn’t spectacular but I had no real complaints—and I left completely stuffed.
Obligatory Korean food shot two.
Sadly there was no traditional North Korean music or costumed dancing, which is normally a highlight of the experience. When I inquired, the waitresses didn’t seem to want to address it directly.
“You know why, right?” asked the waitress. “You already know.”
“Because the Leader died?” I answered.
“Yes. We will have music again in the New Year,” they all chimed. Apparently that meant January 1st, the day after tomorrow.
“How did you feel when you heard Kim Jong-Il died?” I asked.
“He is our father, for the whole nation. He is great.” The waitresses all answered without emotion.
“And how do you feel about his son, Kim Jong-Un.” I asked?
“He is the brother for our whole nation. We feel the same about him. He is great,” they said, one after another.
“Do you know anything about the new leader?’ I probed. ‘Do you know anything about Kim Jong-Un’s life?”
A waitress looked at me blankly. “No.” She shook her head.
“So what did you all do during the 10 days that the restaurant was closed for Kim Jon-Il’s death?” I asked.
“We watched North Korean TV,” the waitresses told me. “Here and at the North Korean Embassy.”
“For 10 days? You didn’t do anything else?” They nodded with vacant expressions. “How did people here at the restaurant feel about it?” I asked. More blank stares. “Was everybody sad? Did you cry?”
“Yes, everybody cried,” they mumbled, looking away.
Restaurant shot with melodramatic oil paintings of North Korean landscapes in the background.
I asked about their life in North Korea and what they do in their free time. All readily told me basic things like how many people were in their family, and the jobs that they all had (which were all very respectable). Their free time activities in North Korean were oddly the same as their free time activities in Cambodia: sleeping, swimming (apparently at a local hotel), exercise regiments at the restaurant, practicing English in their room, and practicing their traditional song and dance numbers in the dining room.
I asked what kind of music that each liked and if they ever listed to music from South Korea, America, China or even Cambodia. Again I got nothing but blank stares. None had ever even bought a cd in the market—and would have me believe that they were never even curious about listening to any.
“I have my music from North Korea. I can listen to traditional Korean dance music CDs for our performance practice,” a waitress replied incredulously. “Why do I need music from other countries? I don’t like it.”
I got similar answers when I asked about foreign cable TV and American movies, all readily available in Cambodia, and cheaper than in America, thanks to piracy. Apparently the waitresses were not allowed to watch or listen to Non-north Korean tv, movies or music, even while they were in Cambodia. None of them knew there was also an American-style cinema in walking distance from the restaurant. They all seem to change the subject when I asked about DVDs in the markets. Likewise, though they said there was a computer at the restaurant, there was no internet for them to use.
It appeared that most of the girls rarely left the restaurant compound. They did say that sometimes they ordered delivery from KFC or a pizza place (both of which they liked a lot), and that occasionally they were taken as a group to go swimming. However when I asked them what they thought about the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the Killing Fields Memorial or the riverfront with the many bars and restaurants, none of them knew what I was talking about.
“There is a museum here?” several asked who’d lived in Phnom Penh a few years already.
A toilet shot. Its the only photo I didn't have to really sneak. They had really nice sit-downs behind me. Certainly its got to be better than the toilets they have at home. Even in 2003, when I arrived in Vietnam, most places only had squatty-potties with ladles to spoon your own water (and no toilet paper), so this must be a luxury to the girls working at the restaurant.
One girl seemed to be somewhat familiar with a few of the city sights, but even so it wasn’t clear from talking to her whether she had merely seen them from inside a passing car. A few did know about buying cloths and makeup at the Sorya Mall. It would seem though that most of these poor girls have spent up to 3 years in Cambodia and yet have never seen the sights around the city, let alone been able to visit Angkor Wat. Their only outings from the restaurant—where they slept on the second floor—were closely guarded to expose them to as little as possible of the city around them. I felt really bad for the girls.
In these young North Korean waitresses I saw the same psychic disconnect that I’ve often observed in Vietnamese young people. These girls have met foreigners, seen the outside world, and now their new feelings no longer match up with the propaganda that they have been taught all their lives. They can spout dogma without a thought, but their hearts were no longer in harmony. However, they don’t yet seem to recognize the irreconcilable dichotomy in their minds. Perhaps one day they will.
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:
No 400, Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: 012 27 74 52
Tel: 012 36 46 40
Open for lunch, 11:30am-ish to 2:30pm-ish and dinner, 5pm-ish to 11pm-ish.