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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Siem Reap's Pyongyang: The Regime Restaurant

Pyongyang's Restaurant

In case you didn't know it, in order to raise revenue for the regime North Korea operates a chain of restaurants.  That is right--the evil empire makes its bucks by selling kimchi

You can read a now outdated article at YaleGlobal, Tunnels, Guns and Kimchi: North Korea’s Quest for Dollars.  To quote Bertil Lintner's above article in some length:
"The restaurants were used to earn additional money for the government in Pyongyang – at the same time, they were suspected of laundering proceeds from North Korea’s more unsavory commercial activities. Restaurants and other cash-intensive enterprises are commonly used as conduits for wads of bills, which banks otherwise would not accept as deposits.  For years, there have been various North Korean-themed restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. But the first in Southeast Asia opened only in 2002 in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. It became an instant success – especially with the thousands of South Korean tourists who flocked to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. It was so successful that Pyongyang decided to open a second venue in the capital Phnom Penh in December 2003. A fairly large restaurant in the capital’s Boulevard Monivong, which offered indifferent Korean staple kimchi and other dishes and live entertainment by North Korean waitresses, closed earlier this year for lack of business." 

North Korean Food in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Since the first of these restaurants in Southeast Asia was opened right here in Siem Reap I took the opportunity to visit one of these restaurants and get a glimpse of North Korean food culture.  One of the Siem Reap restaurants closed, too, but one remains, so I am my wife went there one evening.  The live entertainment has stopped--I understood the staff had been cut.  The place was eerily empty with long tables of silence and shadowy booths.  I imagine that Pyongyang has the same haunting emptiness. My wife thought the place was closed at first.  

We were sat in a booth that offered nearly complete privacy, with high walls around it, despite the fact there was no one else in the entire place.  The walls were lined with paintings of natural scenes, and there was an impressive bar of shoji--a Korean traditional liquor--but impressive prices.  The menu did feature a lot of dog dishes, but we went with duck and I had a North Korean sort of 
pajeon or a scallion and seafood pancake.  

My coffee was mostly water and cost $2.  The meal in total cost us nearly $50 (without alcoholic drinks) which is amazingly expensive for Cambodia--we eat in nice places for $20 with a couple of drinks or a few cocktails.  I hope Kim Jung Il uses it for something nice, like cognac, rather than throwing a few extra dollars into one of his bad movies or crappy nuclear reactors. 

Little known fact: Kim Jung Il is the largest individual customer of Hennessey.  

All in all, it wasn't so impressive.  My simple questions like, "Do you like Cambodia?" and "Do you like North Korea" got affirmative answers from shy and not so attentive waitresses ("Come on, we are the only customers--some service, please?") and it was quickly clear they were trained to say polite affirmatives to anything. 

I understand they all live under supervision--I guess you have to worry about your staff defecting when you are a regime running a restaurant.  You have to admit, though, it creates a dependable work force . . .  but it puts a new spin on the Soup Nazi, doesn't it . . . can you imagine if all Pizza Hut's workers were like indentured servants . . . or serfs.  "I'll sell you the pizza place, and of course all the delivery boys come with it, as well as any children they might have . . .."   

The duck was good, but nothing exceptional, and the pajeon was just adequate.  My wife, who is Cambodian herself, really doesn't get the whole North Korea/South Korea thing.  She just thought I was nuts to pay so much for a meal like that or, worst, suspected perhaps I had a thing for Korean girls.  However, I couldn't resist getting a picture taken with the North Korean waitresses in their rather unflattering traditional dresses before I went.  At that point my significant other was convinced I must have a thing for Korean girls . . . and I have yet to convince her otherwise.  Be advised, though, it will be a long time before I really want to eat at  Pyongyang again--even if I am allowed.


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