Booze and pop thaw Korean tensions

Booze and pop thaw Korean tensions

There’s nothing like lashings of grog and beautiful gals to break down barriers

Siem Reap’s controversial North Korean Pyongyang Friendship Restaurant lived up to its name on Sunday night, in a bizarre, colourful buzz of boozy bonhomie.

This despite South Korean news reports that the restaurant, and a sister establishment in Siem Reap, were under siege and being boycotted in the wake of Korean political strife.

Earlier this month South Korean newspaper The Chosunilbo, reported: “The mood in Siem Reap is now desperate.”

The paper said a placard outside a South Korean restaurant criticising North Korea’s attacks had been torn down by seven people “who appeared to be North Korean agents”.  It said the restaurants are suffering and “it seems that even the performances have stopped now there are no customers”.

That certainly wasn’t the case at the Pyongyang Friendship Restaurant on Sunday night, where the performance was in full swing, attended by a sizable contingent of South Koreans and two Cambodian tour guides.

It was with trepidation that I ventured to the restaurant with my partner, fearful that we were entering a far flung outpost of the Evil Empire peopled by diabolical secret agents.

The Vancouver Sun, reporting on the “Cambodia Restaurant Wars”, warned: “Here’s advice for anyone hankering for Korean food in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh or the tourist mecca of Siem Reap. Sit close to the door and with your back to the wall.” Holy mackerel!

Most web posts and articles about the North Korean restaurants are ominous, referring to them as “hard currency” establishments that “funnel” funds to keep the Evil Empire buoyant, with staff who are possibly “agents”.

The Washington Post’s online magazine Slate last year carried a sinister review of a sister restaurant in Phnom Penh. The article was dotted with disturbing descriptives such as “cold flood-lighting”,  “no-camera policy”,  “Orwellian tinge” and “authoritarian mood”.

This may have been accurate in Phnom Penh, but it certainly wasn’t so in Siem Reap.

The Pyongyang Friendship Restaurant was just plain friendly.

But it is a difficult restaurant for westerners in that the menu is in Korean only and none of the staff speak English or Khmer.

However, a friendly manager appeared. He was quick to introduce himself as North Korean and waited for an instant to gauge the reaction. Then he produced a high-tech electronic dictionary, punched it with a little pointer, and informed my partner that the pictured fish dish she queried was the humble flatfish, sole.

My selection translated into seafood pancakes and, with the food choice out of the way – $30 for two including South Korean Cass beer – it was on with the show. And let’s face it, most foreigners, including myself, are not here for the food. We’re here for the experience, a vicarious thrill-seeking peek into a hidden world.

The show itself is fascinating albeit, from a western point of view, somewhat daggy. It revolves around the bevy of ivory-skinned North Korean beauties who double as waitresses. Indeed, according to Open Radio for North Korea, some may even be, gulp, agents.

The radio station said the waitresses were selected for family background, appearance, ability to dance and play a musical instrument, and university degree. Most are graduates of Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce and come from the ruling class.

Last July the radio station reported that one of the Siem Reap waitresses gained “near-celebrity” status in South Korea after a picture in which she resembles popular actress Kim Tae-hee featured on the internet.

The Friendship Restaurant show morphs through two phases: the girls stop waitressing duties and troop on stage performing a variety of dance and song numbers on a variety of instruments, including two electric guitars and an accordion.

At first the show is a photo fest – South Koreans rush to the edge of the stage to click away furiously.

Then they settle back in their seats and as their grog takes hold, the gals belt out anthemic ditties and pop songs which have a transformative effect.

Enmities are clearly set aside amid the rousing pop tunes – men rush on stage to grab a microphone to sing along while others come and bow and humbly offer money or flowers, eyes brim with nostalgic tears of unification, and it becomes a “hands across the sea” performance.

There’s nothing like lashings of grog, lilting melodies and beautiful gals to break down the barriers between people. While the governments come perilously close to mass slaughter, the people themselves reach out as if to say: “We are all one, we are all Koreans.”

The show is a quaint and sentimental goodwill mission, as south meets north in Siem Reap, and is one of those must-see-once occasions.

For us, a highlight of the evening was asking for a doggie bag. Three gorgeous gals from the Evil Empire stood looking at us and we sat looking at them, viewing each other like creatures from different planets. I said: “For dog, for dog,” making hand gestures of putting food in a bag. My Khmer partner said: “Woof, woof” making hand gestures of putting food in a bag. The North Korean gals said: “Oo gerdunk? Oo gerdunk?”

Suddenly a connection was made. A plastic bag appeared. Smiles and laughs and titters all around, and for one brief moment, before you could even say Dear Leader, we were at one with the universe. Or maybe it was just the booze.


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