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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Big trouble in little Korea

Big trouble in little Korea

Political tensions are on the boil in Korean eateries throughout Cambodia, amid reports the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh has urged its citizens to steer clear of the country’s North Korean government-run restaurants.

South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported on Monday that the embassy had asked tour agencies and residents’ associations to avoid patronising the restaurants after the DPRK’s alleged sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March last year.

Park Jeong-yeon, general manager of the Phnom Penh branch of the Korean Association in Cambodia, confirmed the South Korean Embassy had “recommended” to tour agencies that they take tour groups elsewhere.

“Last year, the Korean warship was shot down by the North Koreans,” he said. “After then, the Embassy of [South] Korea in Cambodia recommended to Korean restaurants and tourist agencies not to go to North Korean restaurants.”

Since the sinking of the Cheonan, and North Korea’s apparently unprovoked shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, relations between the two states have worsened. Park said the association has been campaigning for South Koreans to boycott North Korean restaurants “for years” in response to the DPRK regime’s belligerent behaviour.

The northern regime operates two restaurants in Siem Reap and one in Phnom Penh, part of a worldwide chain of eateries that funnels cash back to the government coffers in Pyongyang.

At the establishments, patrons can tuck into homely northern fare – including Pyongyang cold noodles – and enjoy dance and music performances by troupes of North Korean-born waitresses, who are carefully selected and trained for work abroad.

Following the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, however, Park Jeong-yeon said the KAC distributed signs and stickers to Korean restaurants throughout Phnom Penh, condemning the DPRK’s actions and urging Korean residents to avoid the eateries.

One sticker proclaimed, “We, Korean residents, don’t go to North Korean restaurants.” Another poster, a resolution condemning the sinking of the Cheonan, was also distributed.

Kimchi conflict
One Korean restaurant owner in Phnom Penh claims he was threatened and intimidated by North Korean authorities displaying the association’s material.

The restaurant owner, who did not wish to be named, said that around six months ago, three men came to his restaurant and started taking pictures. The men then tore the stickers from the toilets and removed an anti-DPRK poster from a board outside the eatery.

“They said they were taking orders from the North Korean Embassy. The North Korean Embassy told them to take pictures and take the [sign],” he said.  

“My mother said ‘Stop, stop, stop’. Then they pointed their finger at my mother and I thought my mother was very scared of their strength. I thought that they would use their strength on my mother.”

The restaurant owner has since posted a new sign printed by the Korean Association, dated November 25 – two days after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island – denouncing Pyongyang for trying to provoke a war between the two nations.

A spokesman for the South Korean embassy, who gave his name only as Yun, confirmed the Korean restaurant owner’s story.

“The Embassy understands the incident in Phnom Penh involving North Koreans is under investigation by the relevant authority of the Cambodian government,” he said via email.

Chosun Ilbo reported a similar incident at a restaurant in Siem Reap last month, where seven people “who appeared to be North Korean agents” allegedly tore down a sign criticising the North Korean military attacks.

Yun denied, however, that the embassy had encouraged South Korean citizens to boycott North Korean restaurants.  

“The recent actions, including the boycott of North Korean restaurants, were completely voluntary decisions by the Korean citizens in Siem Reap, to express their regret over the North Korean provocations and take care of the safety and security of Korean tourists,” he said.

Park Jeong-yeon said that the South Korean Embassy remained concerned about South Koreans visiting restaurants run by the DPRK.

“The Embassy worries that people going to the restaurants will give information to the people who run the restaurants and they will educate [South Korean] people about ideology,” he said.

The North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Staff at Pyongyang Restaurant, the North Korean establishment on Monivong Boulevard, also could not be reached.

Lean cuisine
Since the opening of the first North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap in 2002, similar eateries have sprouted across China and Southeast Asia, giving tourists a fleeting taste of life north of the 38th parallel.

The restaurants, though owned and operated by the DPRK, are patronised largely by South Korean tourists and expatriates.

Journalist Bertil Lintner, author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korean Under the Kim Clan, told The Post in 2009 that in the early 1990s, when both the Soviet Union and China began demanding that Pyongyang pay for goods in hard currency rather than barter goods, the DPRK was forced to open “capitalist” foreign ventures to make up funding shortfalls.

“The restaurants were used to earn additional money for the government in Pyongyang – at the same time as they were suspected of laundering proceeds from North Korea’s more unsavoury commercial activities,” Lintner said.

“Restaurants and other cash-intensive enterprises are commonly used as conduits for wads of bills, which banks otherwise would not accept as deposits.”

The Post reported in June 2009 that Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh, which opened in 2003, may have been hit hard by the global economic downturn.

According to Chosun Ilbo, around 120,000 South Koreans visit the two restaurants in Siem Reap each year, contributing an estimated 200-300 million won (US$179,000-269,000) to the North Korean regime.

However, the report suggests that the restaurants are suffering because of South Korean boycotts and that musical and dance performances by North Korean waitresses have been cancelled.

Though relations between the two Koreas seem to have warmed in recent weeks – on Tuesday Pyongyang restored a cross-border diplomatic “hot-line” between the two countries – recent events show that a culinary armistice may be some way off.

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