The closure of the city’s North Korean eatery casts a spotlight on the isolated regime
North Korean waitresses perform for patrons at Pyongyang restaurant prior to its unexpected closure in February this year. Restaurant staff say the eatery will reopen in “about three months”.
PYONGYANG, Phnom Penh's North Korean government-owned restaurant, has long been one of the city's stranger tourist attractions.
Opened in 2003, South Korean tourists and expats flocked to the Monivong Boulevard eatery, where North Korean-born waitresses - wearing traditional dress and pasted-on smiles - served up servings of kimchi, barbecued squid and shrill karaoke.
No portraits of the Great Leader adorned its walls, but Pyongyang provided customers with a rare glimpse into the hermit kingdom of Kim Jong Il - and a taste of its homely native cuisine.
The enigma only deepened when the restaurant was unexpectedly shuttered in February along with Pyongyang branches in Bangkok, Pattaya and Siem Reap, prompting further speculation about the restaurant's obscure operations.
Some experts contacted by the Post suggested the restaurant, just one of dozens across Asia that provide annual remittances and help keep the isolated North Korean regime afloat, may have been hit hard by the global economic downturn.
Journalist Bertil Lintner, who has done extensive research on North Korea, said 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, it was forced to open "capitalist" foreign ventures to make up funding shortfalls.
He said the restaurants are part of this chain of trading companies, controlled by Bureau 39 - the "money-making" (and, according to Lintner, money laundering) arm of the Korean Workers' Party.
"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", he said by email. "Restaurants and other cash-intensive enterprises are commonly used as conduits for wads of bills, which banks otherwise would not accept as deposits."
Sheila A Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, said she had no insight into the restaurants. But she added that a sharp drop in revenues from illicit activities and remittances from Koreans in Japan may have forced the regime to find new income.
"I cannot imagine they make that much money, but then again the North Koreans are desperate for cash - of any amount," she said by email.
"Overall, it will be very hard now for North Korea to access foreign exchange as the international effort to develop sanctions produces greater sensitivity than ever."
A 2007 article in the Daily NK, a North Korean news source created by activists from the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, cited a defector who ran a similar restaurant in China as saying that each establishment affiliated with government "trading companies" is forced to make annual fixed payments of between US$10,000 and $30,000 to the government coffers.
"Every year, the sum total is counted at the business headquarters in Pyongyang, but if there's even a small default or lack of results, then the threat of evacuation is given," he said.
"Capitalist" ventures, however, are vulnerable to market pressures, and Lintner quoted an Asian diplomat in Bangkok as saying the restaurants have been closed down "due to the economic situation".
"Even if those enterprises were set up to launder money, operational costs and a healthy cash-flow are still vital for their survival," Lintner said.
But when contacted Tuesday, staff at the gated restaurant compound suggested Phnom Penh may not have seen the last of Pyongyang's totalitarian kitsch.
"We will be reopening soon, in about three months," a staff member said by phone. When asked whether the closure was a result of renovations, the staff member, who declined to be named, merely said that the restaurant had "a few problems that needed to be taken care of", raising the possibility that economics is not solely to blame.
Moon Young-soo, the manager of Le Seoul Korean restaurant on Monivong Boulevard, said he had heard that the restaurant closed because of internal problems in the DPRK but could not comment further.
But one worker at a nearby business who did not give his name said the restaurant had closed after a dispute with a customer who wanted to take one of its North Korean waitresses out after dinner and encountered resistance.
If true, it would not be the first time. In 2006 and 2007, the Daily NK reported several incidences in China's Shandong and Jilin provinces of restaurants' having been shuttered after its waitresses tried to flee the premises.
According to one report, the waitresses are subjected to a tight screening process before being allowed to work overseas, adding that if even a minor detail is undesirable the candidate is "discarded".
The report also claims two or three DPRK security agents live on-site at the restaurant to "regulate" the staff, and that any attempts at flight result in the repatriation of the entire staff.
"Because they are pursuing business competitively, they have had to shut down operations one after the other due to the inability to manage internal affairs, such as employees breaking away," said the restaurant-manager-cum-defector.
The North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment. But as the pariah nation continues to remain in the headlines over its nuclear weapons programme, a reopened Pyongyang would likely continue to attract visitors eager for a small taste of the reclusive regime.